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Opinion: Why are home make-over tv shows so popular in Ireland?

Property programmes thrive in societies where home ownership is the most valued and celebrated housing ideology, writes Emmett Scanlon.

Emmett Scanlon Architect

WHILE WE ARE all enjoying our outdoor summer, production companies have been busy planning and filming new autumn seasons of home-based lifestyle and makeover television programmes.

Room to Improve, set to return for its thirteenth series in September, remains the flagship of an ever-increasing fleet of home-based programmes broadcast in Ireland, such as Neville’s Doorstep Challenge (2012-14), Showhouse Showdown, (2014 -), Home Rescue (2017-), Great House Revival (2018-) and the increasingly popular Home of the Year (2017-).

Cheap to make and attractive to cash-strapped broadcasters, the home-based format remains robust and popular in Ireland, with new programmes promised.

Build Your Own, due to air later in 2021, will see people self-renovating or self-building a house, mentored by experts through that process. Meanwhile, Designed for Life will offer people the chance to have an “internationally renowned interior designer” work with them on their home project.

These shows trade on the premise that people are endlessly curious as to what is happening, as one Irish show once put it, “beyond the hall door” (1998-2002).

The television format invites viewers to step into the most private of domains while never leaving the couch, a powerfully compelling invitation, one difficult to resist. However, the continued popularity of home-makeover and home-lifestyle television in Ireland is curious.

For some, it points to a growing cognitive dissonance, compounding two realities in Ireland: on the one hand, a culture that seems to worship, even fetishise, domestic property on television and in property supplements and, on the other hand, a growing homeless population, and a deepening housing affordability crisis.

For others still, the continued attachment to such shows indicates a national television broadcaster that is increasingly out of touch with the domestic reality of many Irish citizens, locked out of housing and who are often, insecurely, renting their home.

Given the continued popularity of these programmes, (46.7% of the available television audience, or 641,000 people tuned in to watch a single episode of Room to Improve in 2020), and the daily intensification of the housing crisis, it is worth taking a closer look at just one programme, to better understand how such programmes both reflect and direct aspects of our understanding of home in Ireland.

Room to disapprove

Home of the Year began in 2017 and while not a makeover programme per se, it shares much in common with the most popular home-based shows in that the hosts are presented as experts.

At the start of each episode, a question is asked, “what makes a house a home?”

Each week, three experts – last season two architects and an interior designer – visit three homes. In total, 21 homes were “competing to be crowned home of the year”. The judges were introduced to the viewers as “design-legends” and “award-winning”, and, from the outset, it is they, not the homes, nor indeed the homeowners, who are clearly the stars of the show.

The trio of judges are cast as characters, adopting reality-show tropes. There is the villain who says what they think; the unpredictable one who speaks from eccentric experience; the balanced one who sees both sides, keeping the peace. As disagreements unfold on screen and across social media, the audience is invited to choose a side and is drawn deep into the domestic, design dramas on screen.

HOTY_GroupShot_Final Home of the Year judges Hugh Wallace, Amanda Bone and Suzie Mc Adam Source: RTÉ/ShinAwil/Joe McCallion

Daniel Miller, an anthropologist who believes that “most of what matters to people is happening behind the closed doors of the private sphere”, has shown that the life of a home is nourished by the physical objects of family and memory that act as a kind of supporting cast in our everyday domestic lives.

We hold onto things, exchange gifts, cherish mementoes from our ancestors, we put a vase from our mothers on the mantel, a picture of no value to you might, in fact, mean the world to me.

As Miller has shown over decades of slow, careful study and observation, objects help people to form and sustain social relationships inside and outside the home.

However, on Home of the Year, objects and pictures and chairs and things are only useful as props to support whether – or often not – the judges view them as “making sense” or “fitting in” to some grand design plan. On television, it is not enough to have things that matter to us lying around the house; for the judges, homeowners should be “collectors” and “curators” of their stuff too, everything in its place and earning its keep.

From house to house, a version of life at home is presented on screen, but it hardly reflects the life lived by the audience watching. The homes on television are tidy, organised, impeccably presented. There is no mess, no room full of things to sort out, no dog-eaten chair, no table serving as a place to eat, an office to do conference calls, a school to do homework. There is no Ikea flatpack, waiting for assembly. Very often, there are not even people.

Early on in each episode the homeowner cautiously but proudly places a red disc on their favourite part of their home, for the judges to discover, and then the homeowners vacate the premises. The dramatic device here is that potentially a favourite spot, which was revealed only to the audience, will later be rejected by the judges, without the homeowner being present.

With whom will we side? Will we agree with the owners who live each day in the home of their dreams, where every picture appears to tell a story, or will we side with the expert judges simply doing their rounds? 

We stay tuned, because, at the end of each episode, votes are cast. The judges have the skill and ability to mark each home out of 10. This is impressive, not least because as Shelley Mallett has shown in her review of the literature, homes are perhaps the most socially, emotionally, and historically complex of social settings, and resist easy assessment. 

The judges stand up as they vote, in parallel at individual white lecterns, like members of Government at a press conference, such staging surely intended to convey the gravity of their expert home-assessments. However, no matter how good the homeowner’s taste, it is statistically likely, with so few spaces left in the final, that the homeowners’ taste might not be good enough.

Although the premise of the programmes appears to be to uncover the specific, eccentric, designed houses of each homeowner, the act of voting in fact undermines and thus strips the homeowners of their personal home histories and design agency.

But this is all done to promote good taste and is the point of it all. 

‘Taste matters’

You see, as Deborah Philips and others have noted, an aim of such home-based lifestyle programmes is to transform television “experts” into “tastemakers”. Whether judging a finished home or working with a homeowner to extend their house, such programmes intend that the viewers at home are convinced on a regular basis that the expert hosts know best.

Initial homeowner suspicions and dramatic debates about the “radical” colour of a window or a kitchen are always resolved, with the homeowner’s (non-expert) view being transformed and improved in time for the grand reveal.

The jovial hosts, “perform friendship” in conversations with the homeowners but confirm expertise direct to viewers at home in monologues; they reassure, like all good experts, they are willing to learn and improve by visiting buildings by other architects or debating their design views with other experts; they speak from their own experience but in general terms, using non-specific phrases like “design is all about…simplicity”. All this confirms their superior expertise and taste.

Dermot_And_Diarmuid00900619 Diarmuid Gavin and Dermot Bannon - Room to Improve Source: RTÉ

“Taste matters,” writes Ruth Mc Elroy ”because it can be translated into economic value”. Home-based television programmes may claim to entertain, educate, or democratise design, yet to survive they must exploit the commercial potential of home, and constructing the host as an expert is essential to this process of commodification. 

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As anthropologist Buck Clifford Rosenberg has shown, home programmes tend to advocate a simple, neutral aesthetic, a white, grey and inoffensive “soft-modernism”, essential to depersonalise homes, making them ready, at all times, for the property market.

Rosenberg notes that “in recent decades the concept of lifestyle has emerged, in line with neo-liberal regimes of self-maximisation, through which it became our duty to enhance ourselves through self-expression and consumption”, including at home.

As the commodification and financialisation of housing continues and as opportunities for homeownership and secure tenure have declined, a “taste-anxiety” has emerged, anxiety fuelled by home-based lifestyle television.

But these programmes trade on that anxiety too, seeking to ease it. They offer something to aim for at home, some aesthetically neutral, collective interior to belong to, some tips on how best, not to live at home but to consume there.  

Night after night the audience is encouraged to look around, to feel less but do more, buy more, renovate more, to make their house some “national” ideal home. This, in part, is why hundreds of thousands tune in week after week. 

Far from being passive entertainment, or a how-to-do-it programme about making better homes, Ruth Mc Elroy argues that home-based lifestyle television shows have become occasions for viewers to gain an understanding of what might be their shared national domestic identity.

Again, because viewers are collectively and repeatedly watching programmes that make very private homes public, these programmes are quite compelling to watch and, for Mc Elroy this form of television, “in making the domestic national, sutures the making of home to the making of nation, and more broadly to the making and negotiation of national belonging”.

Home-based lifestyle and property programmes thrive in societies where homeownership, above all forms of other domestic tenures, is the most valued and celebrated housing ideology.

Homes on television tend to be drawn from a specific economic class, homeowners, white middle class, a group who have the money to buy or build their perfect homes and the confidence to put them on television.

Homes on television are also, repeatedly found inside of houses, not apartments, which are a lesser-spotted, and thus it seems, a lesser valued form of housing.

For an ever-increasing proportion of the audience watching, these televised homes must be far out of reach, their own homes – which may be even rented lest we forget – are shown to be less by their omission.  A recent study shows that during lockdown individuals did not feel they had a “secure home”, in part, because, as renters, they were not allowed to personalise, let alone, makeover their homes.

If these programmes are indeed where individuals tune in to establish some sense of a national domestic identity, then an ever-increasing number must be finding themselves excluded, left outside, faces pressed against the thick cold glass of a giant, goose-grey window.

In Britain, the growth of these television programmes is bound up with the privatisation of property and its continued, rising cost. It is the same in Ireland, and Anthony McIntyre has further argued that in Ireland this form of television “seeks to hold at bay anxieties generated by a growing wealth and income disparity in the state”.

Whatever the origins and intentions of these programmes, they are not casually made -  they are carefully constructed, edited and deliberate. Week after week, they transmit very specific, very powerful ideas of home, taste and consumption to a captive audience. 

These ideas are made all the more powerful when broadcast from inside incredible, homes, built of dreams. But these are homes that for many, have moved so far out of reach, they are ghosts, haunting us in the dark when the screen goes black.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here 

Emmett Scanlon is an architect, podcaster and Assistant Professor of Architecture at UCD.

About the author:

Emmett Scanlon  / Architect

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