Real estate may have cooled considerably as an investment, but not real estate television.
House flipping and home renovation programs are still big hits on cable. While "for sale" signs sprout on lawns across the country, TV programmers are like developers who plow ahead with new housing projects anyway.
A new season of the A&E Network's "Flip This House" — one of a troika with TLC's "Flip That House" and Bravo's "Flipping Out" — premieres Saturday night.
A&E has several new programs in development. At least six new ones are beginning on TLC in the next year, starting with "Date My House," where former "Bachelor" Bob Guiney hosts a program where potential buyers spend a night in a home on the market.
HGTV had its highest prime-time ratings ever in January. Nine of its top 10 series deal with the housing market, including "House Hunters," "My First Place," "Hidden Potential," "Buy Me" and "Design to Sell." The network did a special Feb. 29 theme day of "taking the big leap," or investing in that first house.
"What's driving interest right now is that people are worried about it — `what's the value of my home? How can I increase interest in my home?'" said Jim Samples, HGTV president. "And then there's the `life goes on' factor. People are still changing jobs, families are still getting bigger. If anything, they tend to nest in this environment."
Samples has a personal interest in the topic. He's in the process of selling a home in Atlanta and buying one in Knoxville, Tenn., where HGTV has its headquarters.
He admitted, though, that one of his first questions last fall upon taking over HGTV was how the housing market downturn would affect HGTV's programs.
HGTV essentially built itself on the public fascination with property. At its start, the network had shows on crafts and landscaping, but now the home is the focus.
"House Hunters," which premiered in 1999, helped introduce real estate as a prime TV target. When TLC's "Trading Spaces" became a sensation, it proved that renovation and decoration could be entertainment instead of simply chores.
The network has concentrated recently on reviving that franchise, even bringing original host Paige Davis back after a two-year absence.
"Flip That House" will become more reflective of the economy, said Brant Pinvidic, TLC's senior vice president of programming. Not every "flipper" gets rich quick. The show will make sure every time at the end to clearly outline how each investor did, he said.
"If the programming reflects the attitudes in the community and what people are feeling it will do better than if the programs feel outdated," Pinvidic said.
The new "Date My House" reflects how a seller's market has become a buyer's market, he said. "At its core it speaks to the sellers who are now saying, `what can I do to reach the buyers on an emotional level and make them commit to my house,'" he said.
Robert Sharenow, senior vice president for alternative programming at A&E, said he believes the market has made people more interested in finding out how to make the most of what they have, and programming should reflect that need.
"Flip This House" is expanding its cast of characters for the upcoming fourth season, adding renovation teams in Atlanta and Los Angeles to join returning "flippers" from San Antonio and New Haven, Conn.
HGTV said it has resisted house-flipping shows to concentrate on helping viewers make their own homes more appealing and livable and, as a result, more valuable.
"The real estate market is always going to have cycles and when we plan programming, we look at it in a three-to-five-year time frame," Samples said. "It wouldn't be a great decision to be making programming decisions based on how the market is going at the moment."
Peter Schiff, author of "Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse," said he could understand why networks still love this programming. Some are essentially infomercials for real estate agents and people in the home renovation business, he said, and advertisers love supporting the genre, too.
He's not very surprised that the market downturn hasn't led to a downturn in real estate programming.
"The myth dies hard," Schiff said. "It's going to take awhile for Americans to understand the reality that what happened in real estate the last decade was a fantasy."
House-flipping shows increasingly create a false sense of hope in the eyes of homeowners about the value of real estate as an investment, he said. Of course, difficulty in obtaining loans will dash those hopes.
The better home shows will focus on helping people learn do-it-yourself projects to increase the value of their homes, he said.
A&E's Sharenow said he believes programs like "Sell This House" and "Flip This House" have proven themselves immune to the whims of the market.
"These shows at their core are about how to buy and sell your house," he said. "These questions are just as relevant now as when the market was robust, and it was easy to sell your house."