No one has been more swept up in the euphoria of the overheated housing market of the past few years than cable television channels.
First came Property Ladder and Flip That House on Discovery's TLC and Flip This House on the competing A&E; Network. As home values soared, so did the number of real estate programs. TLC came up with Real Estate Pros, and A&E; later served up Sell This House. Bravo jumped into the act this summer, introducing Flipping Out. But what happens to all of these house-flipping shows now that the real estate market seems to be tanking?
"The television equivalent of 'location, location, location' is 'timing, timing, timing,'" said TV historian Tim Brooks. "Now that the bust has come, now that the wave has passed, some of these shows might be in trouble."
Premiering two years ago, just as the real estate market was in full froth, show producers zoomed their camera lenses in on the exploits of "flippers," giddy first-timers and seasoned sharks. They followed people who bought and quickly remodeled rundown homes in Los Angeles and Charleston, S.C. Soon, the shows branched out into such other sizzling markets as Las Vegas, Atlanta and San Antonio.
"At first these stories were tales of easy money," said R.J. Cutler, founder and president of Actual Reality Pictures, which produces Flip That House for Discovery Communications Inc.'s the Learning Channel or TLC. "If you got into the market, and provided a little blood, sweat and tears, then you were going to make some pretty big money."
The payoffs were enormous. The flippers frequently profited $200,000 or more from a single house. The shows, relatively cheap to produce, also allowed cable channels to cash in on the housing boom.
But unlike the real estate market, the bubble for these shows hasn't burst.
Flip This House and Flip That House continue to be among the most popular shows on A&E; and TLC, attracting such major advertisers as Home Depot, General Motors, MasterCard, Coca-Cola, Verizon, AFLAC insurance and Campbell's Soup.
Last year, TLC took in nearly $4 million in advertising revenue for commercial time on Flip That House, a half-hour program, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, which tracks TV ad spending. That's a respectable haul for a weekend cable show.
The hourlong Flip This House on A&E; - part of a joint venture of Hearst Corp., Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and NBC Universal - raked in $9.3 million in ad revenue last year, Nielsen estimated. During the first six months of this year, A&E; collected nearly $10 million for commercial time on the show.
The two shows consistently have posted solid ratings. Flip This House and Flip That House have delivered this year, on average, more than 1 million viewers for premiere episodes. Subsequent runs bring in nearly that many viewers. Both cable channels have ordered a fourth season of episodes for their respective shows.
The programs appeal to a broad audience. Anyone who has suffered through a renovation project can relate to tribulations of the investors. There are frequent disputes with contractors and tensions between spouses and partners. And there is the "Bob the Builder" element, with some viewers getting a vicarious thrill by witnessing the demolition of someone else's kitchen or bathroom and seeing how the room is transformed.
"It comes down to good old-fashion drama: people buying a house and then having limited time and money to improve it," Cutler said. "And you don't know what's in there, catastrophe can be lurking around any corner. It has become a rich landscape for storytelling - even in an uncertain market."
David Scardino, entertainment specialist for RPA, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based advertising agency, put it this way: "The success of these programs demonstrate the power and durability of the dream of homeownership. And these shows play to television's strength - telling emotional stories. It's been a perfect fit for television."
However, Scardino wondered how "real" these shows will feel if the home-flippers on television continue to reap gigantic profits at a time when home prices fall nationwide and "for sale" signs linger for months in neighborhoods. If the shows begin to lack authenticity, Scardino said, viewers might not be so inclined to watch.
"The question is: How much will producers and networks have to shift to keep current with the changing circumstances of the real estate market," Scardino asked. "A lot of these shows are uplifting and feel good, some people get burned but not too badly. But are those stories going to get darker? How much real reality will they let in?"
Producers and some cable executives said they were a little nervous when the housing market first showed signs of trouble. But they adjusted, with some shows focusing more on the personalities of the house flippers than the process of home-renovation.
The other shows have regrouped by sending crews into new cities, including Nashville, Tenn.; New Haven, Conn.; and New Orleans to find fresh stories and neighborhoods where prices are still on the climb.
"We feel compelled to tell both sides of the story," said Carlos Ortiz, the executive producer in charge of Flip That House. "We're going to show viewers what's really happening in the market."
His show often revisits flippers from previous episodes to provide viewers with "recaps," such as when the sales price falls short of the initial projections.
"When people lose money, we are going to show them losing money," Ortiz said. "We're not going to spin everything so there are rainbows and bunnies at the end of every show."
Ortiz said there are different stories to tell. His crews have found uplifting real estate stories in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"People are trying to restore these wonderful old houses, and we are showing that people aren't giving up on New Orleans," Ortiz said.
Robert Sharenow, a senior vice president at A&E; in charge of nonfiction programming, predicted that programs like Flip This House would endure beyond "this hiccup in the market."
"The show is kind of recession-proof," Sharenow said. "If there are more foreclosures, that will make flipping opportunities more readily available. Even if the profit margins are slimmer, there will still be plenty of challenges and pressure and drama. It turns the heat up on the drama when times are tougher."
And cable executives seem to have an endless appetite for these shows. Already planned as part of Actual Reality Pictures' "flip empire" are such spinoffs as Flip That Restaurant, Flip That Loft, Flip It Back.
"Television is the land of wretched excess," said Brooks, the TV historian. "As soon as something is successful, everyone jumps on the bandwagon."
Meg James writes for the Los Angeles Times.