TV UK, 21 May

Why are TV shows about buying, building or bettering our homes dominating the schedules?

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

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Coming home late after a hard day’s commuting, why is it that all TV has to offer me are property shows? And why is it that Her Indoors always insists on watching them?

There are makeover shows (Changing Rooms, Ground Force, Real Rooms); shows to help you buy (Property Ladder, Location, Location, Location); shows to relocate at home or abroad (Relocation, Relocation, No Going Back, A Place in the Sun); and shows to help you patch up your DIY disasters (too numerous to mention).

There are now property-reality crossover shows, too. Coming soon to UK screens is The Block, a big hit in Australia, where four couples take over identical apartments in Brighton and do them up with a fixed budget, while being watched by cameras Big Brother-style. Let the arguments commence.

Perhaps the most appalling is Trouble in Paradise, where seven couples build a house together in Spain but progressively vote each other out until one couple ends up the winner and keeps the place. Surely the point of a competition is to win something with minimal effort, not to bust a gut with no better than a one-in-seven chance of winning the prize, while having to be nice to people you don’t like and are actively competing against?

Maybe the point of this show is to demonstrate how stupid people can be, and how the knives come out when the prize is threatened. This kind of bitchfest seems to make poor television; ITV1 has exiled the show to the graveyard shift after only two episodes.

Nonetheless, the property boom is set to continue. Ben Frow, the man who commissioned many of these programmes for Channel 4, has now earned a big money transfer to Five with the threat to commission even more. His first move was to sign up the camp stars of daytime makeover, Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan. (Talking of crossover shows, how long before these two are fronting ‘Queer Eye for the DIY?’)

In fact, by the time Five has finished revamping House Doctor and given us 10 Ways to Get On the Property Ladder, channels 4 and Five will be identical: American imports and property shows, wall-to-wall, as it were. No wonder the two channels are said to be in merger talks.

There are many reasons why property shows are good news for TV execs. Firstly, they’re relatively cheap to produce. Secondly, they are popular – recent repeats of Grand Designs on Channel 4 have been pulling in five million viewers, and shows don’t get much cheaper than repeats. Thirdly, they get the right kind of audience, just the kind of aspirant, up-and-coming types who aren’t afraid to give the credit card a beating to get ahead – an advertiser’s dream.

The rise of the reality show, and the property show in particular, is, at least, a change from quiz shows and soaps. But how depressing that executives are so unadventurous that they are happy to commission yet more of this stuff rather than taking a risk with something else. Not all reality shows are rubbish; some can be highly entertaining. But many of them are already tired formats being recycled, or done cheaply and without imagination. They are the TV equivalent of boy bands.

Even more depressing is the thought that as a nation, we’re becoming more and more instrumentalist in what we watch. Our relaxation entails finding out how much we could make when we flog our homes, or how we can improve our lives with a bit of magnolia and some MDF. Why do we even need these series? In the past, people would have just gone out and bought a book about this kind of thing. Except, of course, now all the books are now spin-offs from these very TV programmes.

Then there are the escapist shows that involve families moving to the middle of the French countryside or starting a new business. Few of us are actually going to up-sticks and move abroad – so we watch these other people do it, both hoping for their success and laughing at their failures. But why does the idea of living in the middle of nowhere in another country where we can’t speak the language and have no friends, while running a bed and breakfast for British tourists, appeal so much? Surely London or Manchester is better than an 18-hour day in the Dordogne?

It seems as though escapism can’t be all that escapist these days. Our aspirations are either limited to tarting up the bathroom or cashing in the house. Shamefully, I know enough about these programmes to discuss them at length. Still, thank God for Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

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