Just How Gay Is ‘House Hunters’?

06/06/2017 11:15 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2017

New research reveals 4.3 percent of “House Hunters” episodes feature gay people

A record-high number of Americans think our country is divided – I count myself among them. Political divisiveness is so pervasive and ever-present that I find myself consistently searching for ideological bridges – topics that forge connections across ideology to build upon the things we have in common.

TV can be a major force in bridging these divisions. We all consume content that amplifies our existing worldview, but there are also still some shows that can bring opposing people into the same space.

Enter House Hunters.

In the last 18 years, HGTV’s House Hunters has produced over 30,000 minutes of content that almost everyone can relate to – deciding where to live. It is the ultimate common denominator and it serves as an escape from the divisiveness of the day.

As a gay man, there is another reason why I love House Hunters – I get to see families that look like mine. This is no longer a unique experience – there were over 250 LGBTQ characters on scripted broadcast, cable and streaming shows this season.

Queer visibility on bridge channels like HGTV is different though. There is something exhilarating about seeing real queer families do something as basic as look for a place to live. In part, this exhilaration comes from knowing that lots of different people are watching the show and they are getting the message that families like mine are nothing to fear.

MIT’s Edward Schiappa calls this the Parsasocial Contact Hypothesis – the idea that viewers process mass-mediated interaction like they process real life interaction, which allows exposure to LGBTQ people on screen to reduce prejudice and build understanding.

This is why every LGBTQ depiction on HGTV is so important – it exposes families like mine to viewers who may not have had much exposure to queer families. The network has a uniquely politically diverse following, with Facebook fans distributed across the political spectrum: 15 percent Very Liberal, 21 percent Liberal, 24 percent Moderate, 23 percent Conservative and 18 percent Very Conservative.

USC Norman Lear Center

Advertisers are fully aware of how important the broad HGTV audience is – the network commands ad rates at almost double most other cable networks and the ideological diversity is on display in the commercials as well. In March, HGTV commercial breaks repeatedly showed commercials for the Gaga premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race followed immediately by ads for Ark Encounter – the Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky. Where else on television can that happen?

CONTENT ANALYSIS OF GAY-INCLUSIVE HOUSE HUNTERS EPISODES

To kick off LGBTQ Pride Month, I wanted to find out just how gay-inclusive HGTV is, so I am starting with the network’s flagship show: House Hunters. I conducted a content analysis of all 1,565 verified episode descriptions on the show’s website. These descriptions average 74 words and they typically contain enough information to figure out if the episode features LGBTQ people. You can’t find out everything from the episode descriptions, so more in-depth research is in the works, but the description paragraphs provide a solid start in finding out how LGBTQ-inclusive House Hunters really is.

I found a total of 68 episodes featuring gay men or lesbians. Therefore, 4.3 percent of all House Hunters episodes include gay or lesbian real estate seekers, which is higher than the 3.5 percent of Americans who identify as LGB according to The Williams Institute.

GAY MEN OVERREPRESENTED

Among the inclusive episodes, gay men were represented in a whopping 86.7 percent (59 episodes), with only 13.3 percent (9 episodes) focusing on lesbian couples. This is sadly familiar, LGBTQ TV depictions typically underrepresent women, but these numbers are particularly unbalanced. Additionally, with zero instances found, the plague of invisibility facing bisexual, non-binary or transgender individuals is at play here as well.

For avid HGTV watchers, 4.3 percent gay-inclusive episodes may sound low – but to be clear – this analysis focused exclusively on the original House Hunters franchise. Analyses on House Hunters Renovations, House Hunters International, Tiny House Hunters and several other HGTV shows (including the oft debated Fixer Upper inclusion issue) are currently in the works, but they are not represented in this data set.

RELATIONSHIP RECOGNITION

Episodes only counted as focusing on queer folks if it was completely clear in the episode description. In 22.1 percent of the gay-inclusive episode descriptions, recognition of the couple’s relationship was overtly stated with descriptors like partners, married, commitment ceremony, tied the knot, dating, fell in love, and couple. The remainder of the episodes depended on gendered terms in the description or individual names that made it obvious it was a same-sex couple (e.g. “Mike and Sean, are commercial airline pilots, who live in Argyle, Texas”).

Episode descriptions containing androgynous names required further research from outside sources to determine whether or not the episode focused on LGBTQ people. If outside evidence didn’t clarify, the episode was not included. Lastly, all inclusive episodes feature couples except for one episode with a gay individual. Outside research showed that the episode features a single Palm Springs home seeker who explicitly states that he is gay. Plenty of other episodes could contain LGBTQ individuals as home seekers or real estate agents, but none of them were explicitly stated in the descriptions.

WHERE ARE THE GAY EPISODES?

A big part of the allure of watching House Hunters is to see what the housing situation looks like in other areas of the country. The gay-inclusive episodes show that gay folks indeed live everywhere from the coastal gayborhoods to the rural plains. The 68 gay-inclusive episodes take place in 24 states plus Washington DC. Over 35 percent of the gay-inclusive episodes were in the Pacific region, with California featured in one-quarter of the gay episodes. It may be surprising to hear that 29.4 percent of the gay episodes were in the South, but this aligns with Williams Institute research, which says 35 percent of the U.S. LGBTQ population lives in the South. Some episode descriptions indicate that a couple is buying a vacation home or they are moving from one state to another – only the city where they are searching for a home is included in the analysis.

USC Norman Lear Center
USC Norman Lear Center

GAY PARENTS

Six million people have an LGBTQ parent, but only nine of the gay-inclusive House Hunters episode descriptions mentioned children (13.2 percent). Five of the couples already have children and four of the couples were seeking a home that could accommodate their future children. Six of the episode descriptions (8.8 percent) mentioned the couple’s dog(s).

FUTURE RESEARCH

This is the first of several pieces of research on HGTV as an ideological bridge. If you have any ideas on other ideological bridges, please tweet us at @LearCenter.

Adam Amel Rogers is a Project Administrator at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center. He can be reached at adam.rogers@usc.edu.

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