Smaller Is Better in ‘Property Porn’

How Downsized Living Options are Drawing Buyers — and Viewers
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The still-recovering housing market has spurred a subculture of downsized and alternative living options — and an audience for networks with programs showcasing this new residential trend.

Shows like FYI’s Tiny House Nation, HGTV’s Log Cabin Living and Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters and Ice Lake Rebels offer an alternative to the high-priced luxury homes and mansions profiled on various real estate-themed cable shows. Millennials in particular are gravitating to the new style of living, and viewers are going along for the ride.

“Buying into the dream of the four-bedroom house with the 30-year mortgage isn’t a desirable option for a lot of people anymore,” Rick Holzman, executive vice president and general manager of Animal Planet, said. “Everyone is always looking at the other path, so there’s a real movement toward a tiny house philosophy — even RVs [recreation vehicles] have seen a resurgence.”

With the housing market on an upswing after the real estate downturn of 2008-09 — total existing home sales increased by 2.4%, compared to a month ago, according to the National Association of Realtors — network executives say viewer interest in real-estate themed shows are on the rise.

BOOM MARKET

In recent years, there has been an explosion of home-buying, house-flipping and housing-renovation shows on cable that have generated strong ratings. Such programs as Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing franchise, Discovery Channel’s Property Wars and HGTV’s Property Brothers showcase often extravagant or expensive houses that viewers can only dream about buying and living in.

“There are a lot of ‘property porn’ shows that are a voyeuristic endeavor for viewers to see how other people live,” Holzman said.

The recent trend toward alternative housing options is driving a different type of real-estate voyeurism for cable viewers, according to network executives. Millennials in particular are looking at these alternative dwellings as cost-saving options to the traditional single family home, which costs an average of nearly $210,000, according to the National Association of Realtors.

By comparison, small, portable houses like those showcased on FYI’s breakout series Tiny House Nation — which follows building experts John Weisbarth and Zack Giffin as they develop small living accommodations that are 186 square feet on average, compared to the 2,100 square feet in the standard U.S. house — cost about $23,000 if built by the owner, according to website thetinylife.com.

Allison Page, general manager of the Scripps Networks Interactive Home category, said shows such as Tiny House Nation and HGTV’s Log Cabin Living, in which families seek a quieter, relaxed living experience in more ruralbased log cabin homes, show a version of home-buying that can actually be realized by most viewers.

“We know that our viewers come to see dreams that are relatable — they see themselves in our show,” Page said. “These are also alternate lifestyles that have a romanticism about them. I think the romanticism of a treehouse or a tiny home or log cabin is appealing.”

For millennials, these alternative housing options are becoming the reality. “Very smart, sophisticated young people in particular find it very compelling to move into these very meticulously created tiny houses that are also mobile and are more cost-efficient for them,” Gena McCarthy, executive producer of Tiny House Nation, said.

Added Holzman: “Millennials see the world differently and have a different perspective on property and h0ome ownership.”

That’s translating into younger viewers for these shows. Tiny House Nation is the youngest-skewing show in what FYI calls its home-living genre, with a median viewer age of 48, according to McCarthy.

“I think young people are always fascinated by smart options, and Tiny House Nation is a housing option — it’s some people’s fantasy and some people’s horror story, and I think that’s part of its appeal,” McCarthy said. “I think all of these formats are laden with great ideas — there is wonderful viewer takeaway in terms of great design and lifestyle tips that anyone at any age can find relevant to the way they live.”

LIVING THE DREAM

But it’s not just millennials who are attracted to the genre. These shows play on the youthful dreams of Generation X viewers who, as kids, may have built log cabins with Lincoln Logs or daydreamed about building a treehouse in the backyard, according to Holzman.

“We see a lot of 40-somethings watching these shows, but they’re watching with their kids because it’s family-friendly and it allows the adults to have their childhood dreams fulfilled,” he said.

Animal Planet’s sophomore series Treehouse Masters, which follows designer Pete Nelson as he creates homes above the ground in trees; and Ice Lake Rebels, which showcases people who live off the grid on boats in the icy frontier of Canada’s Northwest Territories, are drawing big audiences across all demos, according to Holzman. Treehouse Masters averaged 1.3 million viewers on a live-plus-three-day basis this past summer, while Ice Lake Rebels drew more than 800,000 primetime viewers on a live-plus-three-day basis during its summer freshman run. Both were well above Animal Planet’s 612,000 primetime average for the third quarter.

“We live overcomplicated, connected and hectic dayto- day lives, and people are looking for an alternative,” Holzman said.

HGTV’s Log Cabin Living also found a wide audience when it premiered as a pilot this past May. The pilot drew 1.2 million viewers, leading the network to green-light a full-series run. The first season will begin in April 0f 2015.

HGTV’s Page said that the network’s genre-based shows, which also include Beachfront Bargain Hunt, Hawaii Life and Living Alaska, are among its top-rated series. Viewers are looking for alternative living accommodations that would provide a more relaxed and comforting viewing experience than traditional real estate shows, she said.

Added FYI’s McCarthy: “There’s an escapist, fantastical element to see people live like this — as a viewer, there’s a degree of, ‘Could I or would I do that?’ There is that that push-me/pull-me element of going from a big space to a smaller, more-efficient space.”

There seems to be no end to the genre’s momentum. FYI has already greenlit a spinoff from Tiny House Nation Tiny House Hunting — to debut in 2015. The network is also exploring several other shows within the alternative living quarters genre, but would not disclose specifics.

“If we can find unique ways into the space, then we’ll stay ahead of the curve and stay relevant,” McCarthy said.

HGTV’s Page believes that the industry is just scraping the surface of the genre’s potential. “I think the genre is endless because people’s imaginations of how, where and what they want to live in are endless,” she said.

ROOM TO GROW

Holzman also believes that the alternative living space genre has a lot of upside. The genre is not just about real estate, he added, but more about a lifestyle ethos that’s attainable for most people.

“Very few people are not going to move to the Yukon or parts unknown in Alaska, but it is a common aspiration for urban and suburban denizens to want to have a little [piece of] land in the woods with a lake and nice trees where you can get away and connect with your family,” Holzman said. “As unique characters and opportunities present themselves, we’ll continue to look at this space.”

The still-recovering housing market has spurred a subculture of downsized and alternative living options — and an audience for networks with programs showcasing this new residential trend.

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