No one has been more swept up in the euphoria of the overheated housing market of the last few years than cable television networks.
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 in the last few years, just as the real estate market was in full froth, the shows zoomed their camera lenses in on the exploits of "flippers," giddy first-timers and some seasoned sharks. They followed people who bought and quickly remodeled rundown homes in North Hollywood, Highland Park and Charleston, S.C. Soon, the productions 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, which are 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 just yet.
"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 and Campbell's Soup.
TLC last year 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., NBC Universal and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC -- raked in $9.3 million in ad revenue last year, Nielsen estimated. During the first six months of this year, A&E has collected nearly $10 million for commercial time on the show.
The two shows have consistently posted solid ratings. "Flip This House" and "Flip That House" this year have delivered, on average, more than 1 million viewers for new episodes. Repeats 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 home renovation project can relate to the 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 then 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. And you don't know what's in there, catastrophe can be lurking around any corner," Cutler said. "It has become a rich landscape for storytelling -- even in an uncertain market."
David Scardino, entertainment specialist for RPA, a Santa Monica-based advertising agency, put it this way: "The success of these programs demonstrates 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 would feel if the home-flippers on TV continued to reap gigantic profits at a time when home prices fell nationwide and "for sale" signs lingered 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 said. "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.