This article examines the “turn to lifestyle” in the longstanding genres of how-to and domestic advice programming, which began in 1994 with the launch of Home & Garden Television (HGTV) and the Food Network. It frames lifestyle's spread across the growing cable television system in the late 1990s and 2000s as the result of industrial conditions that favored the growth and consolidation of cable networks, as well as growing cultural interest in “lifestyle” as a consumerist form of identity. In this context, a turn to lifestyle in programming offered the new networks HGTV and Food Network a way to broaden the appeal of their programs in an increasingly competitive niche cable environment, as well as to secure upscale audiences for advertisers. The article examines a range of HGTV and Food Network programs that utilized lifestyle's logic, including Emeril Live!, Paula's Home Cooking, Barefoot Contessa, Divine Design with Candice Olson, Design on a Dime, and Small Space, Big Style. In such programs, lifestyle became codified in a set of televisual logics that departed from those found on how-to programs: they articulated middle-class fantasies of ordinariness, had an attenuated focus on instruction in favor of the more diffuse and aspirational concept of “inspiration,” and posited small-scale domestic gatherings as the ideal mode of social engagement in a period of diminishing wealth and income security.
In 1994, the Daytime Emmy Awards inaugurated new categories of recognition for “service shows,” programs that were hosted by experts and instructed viewers in gardening, home décor, cooking, and other domestic hobbies. In the same year, Home and Garden Television (HGTV) was launched as the first “all-lifestyle” cable channel. By 2007, the Emmys had renamed its category “Outstanding Service Show Host” as “Outstanding Lifestyle Host.” This did not last, however: the following year, the category was renamed again, as “Outstanding Lifestyle/Culinary Host,” drawing some distinction, apparently, between topics that were culinary and those that were properly “lifestyle.” Yet even this shift did not settle the matter: in 2013, this category was split into two: “Outstanding Culinary Host” and “Outstanding Lifestyle/Travel Host,” aligning the notion of lifestyle more concretely with travel and leaving the culinary to its own devices. Or did it? If anything, the impreciseness of the nomenclature of “lifestyle” reflects a broader cultural confusion about what lifestyle television is and when it began. Indeed, though women's magazines have dispensed domestic advice for well over a century, and pedagogical cooking programs have aired on television and radio since those media's earliest days, the particular combination of topics, themes, and production formats reflected in the shifting lifestyle television category is, if not entirely new, the result of changing cultural, technological, and political factors. This article considers the cultural shifts bound up in the turn from daytime television's “service” programming to lifestyle programming on two networks that did much to bring so-called lifestyle television to cultural dominance: Home and Garden Television and the Food Network.
As David Bell and Joanne Hollows have noted, “lifestyle” is a hazily defined cluster of genres and formats, comprising (nonexhaustively) magazines, books, television, and digital texts that mediate everyday life.1 Charlotte Brunsdon and Frances Bonner have identified similar shifts in Britain and Australia in the late 1990s, from “factual entertainment” genres—what I call here “how-to” programs—to lifestyle formats.2 For Brunsdon, this shift resulted in large part from the dismantling of some of the public service foundations of the British broadcasting system and a move toward a more commercial system; the increasing commercial focus (with branded products and celebrity hosts) of BBC programs made them look more like what by then had already become widely understood as lifestyle television in the United States. Brunsdon and Bonner give comprehensive, if nationally specific, senses of what lifestyle programming involves and how it extended and modified how-to programming. In contrast to the United Kingdom, however, the United States always had a commercial broadcasting system, and commercial food manufacturers sponsored cooking and domestic advice programs on the radio as early as the 1930s, which makes the shift to lifestyle on television both less perceptible and more perplexing. Why, then, if American broadcasting was always governed by commercial imperatives, did “lifestyle” become attached to these historically instructional genres? What happened within the context of television production and audience reception that rendered these shifts desirable?
I propose that the American “turn to lifestyle” was a shift in both nomenclature—the cultural redesignation of such programs as lifestyle—and in logic of the programs on HGTV and the Food Network. Indeed, more than simply nomenclature, the programs produced for HGTV and the Food Network reflect a change in tone and address toward what I identify as lifestyle's core logics: ordinariness, inspiration, and sociability. This essay first briefly addresses the contexts that made lifestyle programming a viable form of media to both producers and audiences in the incipient era of cable narrowcasting in the mid-1990s. Historically a newspaper company, E. W. Scripps's move into cable was made possible by neoconservative telecommunications policies that created a climate of convergence and proliferation. It then discusses the turn to lifestyle on HGTV and the Food Network in their programming from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. In this context, lifestyle's cultural logic offered Scripps a way to broaden the appeal of its programs in an increasingly competitive niche cable environment. I focus most extensively on these issues in the context of a range of programming that the Food Network and HGTV aired in the roughly ten years between the late 1990s and the end of the 2000s.3 It is primarily during this period that lifestyle became codified in a set of televisual logics: a focus on ordinariness; the loosening of the pedagogical format to incorporate inspiration, consumerism, and fantasy; and a belief in home entertaining—made possible by women's labor in the home—as the ideal form of sociability.
EMPIRE BUILDING: THE LAUNCH OF HGTV AND THE FOOD NETWORK
Between 1980 and 1996, the period leading up to the cable television boom, the interrelated forces of deregulation, neoliberalism, and market concentration created a climate of expansion, commercialization, and intense competition that radically restructured the television industry.4 The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, promoted by the laissez-faire Federal Communications Commission chairman Mark Fowler, provided the policy framework for the rapid growth of cable systems and hastened the vertical integration of media conglomerates.5 Cable proliferation was made possible not just by telecommunications policy, but also by technological advances in fiber optics and digitally compressed signals that allowed more channels to be distributed over existing transponders at potentially lower costs.6 However, despite the oft-discussed possibility of the five-hundred-channel cable universe, there were technological limitations that prevented the unlimited expansion of cable.7 Analog cable boxes were built to carry a limited number of channels, and by the early 1990s, after a decade of expansion, they had no room for emerging channels. Trade publications suggested that with the glut of new channels looking to populate cable carriers, only those that were vertically integrated (that is, those with a foothold in production, distribution, and secondary markets) and had major financial resources could remain viable in the long term.8 The prevailing industry logic was that media conglomerates could better protect fledgling networks and provide an environment for synergistic distribution of their media content.
The launch of HGTV was made possible by E. W. Scripps's diversified corporate structure as the owner of newspapers and network affiliate stations. In 1993, Scripps announced plans for its first channel, Home and Garden Television, the brainchild of Scripps executive Ken Lowe. Variety heralded HGTV as “the only 24-hour network dedicated entirely to lifestyle programming.”9 It began airing in December 1994 in a reported 6.5 million households.10 Meanwhile, the Television Food Network (initially shortened to TVFN and rebranded as the Food Network in the late 1990s) launched in November 1993 as a joint venture between CNN's founding president Reese Schonfeld, the Providence Journal Company (like Scripps, a media conglomerate that began in print), and its cable subsidiary Colony Communications. Scripps was also an initial stakeholder in TVFN: although it sold its shares after the network failed to show immediate profits, the company bought back majority ownership of the network in 1997.11 HGTV and Food Network were Scripps's flagship lifestyle properties, and not only did the two channels share programming after the Food Network was acquired, but the programs produced for HGTV and TVFN were aired on Scripps's later lifestyle channels Travel Channel, Fine Living, and the Cooking Channel as they were acquired or launched.
According to press releases, programming that populated HGTV in its first few years fell into four categories: repair and remodeling, decorating, gardening, and hobbies and crafts.12 Hobby shows included some programs aimed at men and mixed audiences, including Lucille's Car Care Clinic (1996), hosted by grandmotherly mechanic Lucille Treganowan, and American Hobbies and Pastimes (1994), hosted by John Ratzenberger of Cheers (NBC, 1982–93). Decorating and gardening shows included The Carol Duvall Show (1994–2005; figure 1), a popular crafting and sewing show; the instructional quilting program Simply Quilts (1996–2007; figure 2); and the design programs Awesome Interiors (1994), Room by Room (1994–2008), and Lynette Jennings Home (1994–96). These shows typically were hosted by friendly experts on a studio set and featured instructional segments, interviews with professional designers and craftspeople, and occasionally segments taped on location elsewhere. That's Home Entertainment (1995), hosted by comedian Wil Shriner, looked at home entertainment technologies from the 1995 Consumer Electronics Show.13
Like HGTV, in its first years TVFN also ran a range of programming as it sought a foothold in the market. Kathleen Collins contends that ideas for TVFN programming emerged from a yuppie mentality, “reflecting the notion that interest in food equates with haute cuisine and dining out.”14 Collins's account of TVFN's early programming strategy as restaurant- and star chef–centric is only partial, however. TVFN also filled time with classic cooking programs by Dione Lucas, Jacques Pépin, and Julia Child, primarily because they were available cheaply for syndication. TVFN also experimented with talk show–style programming because it did not yet have a production facility equipped with adequate kitchens. Such programs included Food News and Views (1993), styled after the popular MTV News; David Rosengarten's Taste (1994–2002), a program devoted to discussing food cultures and traditions; and a Robin Leach–hosted talk program called Robin Leach Talking Food (1993). Finally, TVFN also produced new cooking programs that had a straightforward instructional format—often called the “dump and stir”—but attempted to enliven the format with vivacious hosts and exotic cuisines. Examples of these programs include How to Boil Water (1993–96), hosted by Emeril Lagasse; two female chefs cooking Mexican cuisine on Too Hot Tamales (1995); and Chillin' and Grillin' (1996), hosted by Bobby Flay.
As this brief outline illustrates, programming strategy throughout this period was a volatile mix of formats and topics. Media analysts and scholars have characterized this period of television's development as one of audience fragmentation, “a process by which the mass audience, which was once concentrated on three or four viewing options, becomes more widely distributed” and “the average channel audience becomes smaller.”15 Narrowcasting followed the more widespread shift during the 1970s and '80s away from mass marketing toward Values and Lifestyles (VALS)–based strategies that identified and targeted narrow, but desirable, demographic niches. Accordingly, as a cable channel's potential audience share dwindled with each new channel that launched, “maximization” became an even greater concern. It often meant a greater push to make niches as broadly appealing as possible and to target those audiences who had higher incomes and more upscale consumption patterns.
The concept of lifestyle, also borrowed from VALS marketing, offered one potential avenue of maximization. Applied by press and commentators to Martha Stewart's glossy books on entertaining in the 1980s, lifestyle offered a consumerist, aspirational updating of cookbooks and women's domestic labor.16 The New York Times quoted an expert as saying that although lifestyle programs had been around before (for how long isn't specified), “HGTV is the first network, cable or otherwise, to devote its entire programming schedule, seven days a week, to life-style topics.”17 Here, life-style (hyphenated by the journalist) denotes not only the feminized genres of cooking and domestic programs, as it had with Martha Stewart, but also the way that these programs consolidated a set of aspirational, consumerist logics and, in so doing, consolidated upwardly mobile audiences for advertisers. The Washington Post wrote in 1997, “No longer is daytime the sole province of soap operas and talk shows. Dozens of these ‘lifestyle’ shows focused on the domestic arts—home repair, decorating, cooking, gardening, crafts, hobbies, pets and remodeling—are drawing millions of viewers, a new audience made up of not only traditional housewives but also telecommuters and home business proprietors.”18 What is notable here, aside from the dubious claims of “millions” of audience members and the recognition of these programs as lifestyle by the popular press, is the author's dawning recognition of daytime audiences as valuable. Daytime audiences had long been considered primarily female by ratings companies and networks, and women simultaneously were devalued intellectually in their preference for soaps and game shows and valued economically for their primary role in household consumption.19 Ken Lowe told a journalist in 1995 that the new HGTV “is a life-style network, about houses, apartments and condominiums, and the activities in and around them.”20 Lowe's use of life-style carries the generic expectations of domesticity and entertaining. More than that, HGTV's range of shows reflected a growing cultural interest in exploring the heterogeneity of ordinary family life. Mimi White suggests that HGTV's House Hunters (1999–present) reveals the ways in which “houses and house buyers are at once particular and general, singular and multiple, idiosyncratic and representative, different and the same, private and public.”21 Because they focus on domesticity and the differing ways that people construct “home” and “the good life,” House Hunters, and indeed HGTV's programming more broadly, offer the pleasures of both identification and voyeurism, hailing audiences in their generality and specificity. The notion of a channel devoted to food in the shift from broad- to narrowcasting was similarly advantageous. Cooking shows cost very little to produce compared to other kinds of programs such as prime-time dramas. Moreover, they have enormous advertising and sponsorship potential with food companies, as has been the case since the days of radio cooking programs. Most importantly, food as a topic is infinitely divisible into a range of specialty programs, to which the litany of early programming formats on TVFN attests: from the how-to cooking shows that had been a staple of public broadcasting, to travel programming, to “foodie” programs with celebrity chefs that focus on food as cultural capital. In short, as a topic that was simultaneously mass and niche, food was ideally flexible in a period of market expansion and network conglomeration.
As the Emmy category confusion indicates, the uneven language in the press about these new lifestyle networks indicates that the cable industry's recognition of programs as “lifestyle”—whether as a specific genre or as a way to describe a set of genres—was uneven in the 1990s.22 As mentioned above, its founder, Ken Lowe, discussed HGTV in the press as a lifestyle network even before its launch. Yet the programs mentioned above remained more closely linked to their genre—cooking, gardening, or hobby show—through the 1990s. Thus it makes little sense to speak of lifestyle as a genre; instead, it is a set of cultural logics that crept into the genres aired on both networks. In the following sections, I discuss these logics in a range of HGTV and Food Network programs, each of which encourage consumption in subtle but unmistakable ways: via ordinary aesthetics that construct upper-middle-class domesticity as normative, an emphasis on inspiration over instruction, and the positing of domestic entertaining as the ideal form of sociability.
The first important element of the turn to lifestyle logic is a preoccupation with ordinary aesthetics. That is to say, programs are situated in an “everyday” to which the viewer is presumed to have access. A concern with ordinariness manifests itself most obviously in lifestyle's orientation toward practices of everyday life (cooking, gardening, home décor and maintenance), an orientation that extends from earlier how-to formats. Cooking programs, for instance, always relied on the convention of the kitchen set, modeled on a home kitchen, as a necessary prerequisite for instruction. An example from an earlier pedagogical cooking program is instructive. On The French Chef (1963–73), aired on WGBH in Boston, Julia Child sometimes began episodes with a hypothetical event as a possible premise for cooking the episode's dishes: boeuf bourguignon is excellent for a boss coming to dinner, salade niçoise ideal for lunch. This was irregular, however, and many episodes simply focused on an ingredient, such as potatoes. In contrast, HGTV and TVFN programs during the 1990s exhibit a much keener interest in grounding its instruction in “real-life” narratives and social events. This is not a change in kind, but rather in degree: whereas Child occasionally posed a hypothetical event for which the episode's recipes might be suitable, lifestyle programs regularly situate the episode's labors in terms of an actual event in the host's life—however polished, narrativized, and otherwise constructed by televisual conventions and scripting the event appears to be.
This is a common strategy on Food Network's lifestyle cooking shows, which revolve around the host's personality and image, anchoring the instruction in food or home design in the host's daily life. For instance, Joanne Hollows writes that on Nigella Bites (BBC, 1999–2001; aired in syndication on Food Network beginning in 2006), “the cooking takes place in the context of everyday life in her home. … It is interspersed with images of the Nigella lifestyle: dropping off and picking up the kids, shopping for food, photo shoots for her books, writing on the computer, playing with the children, socializing with friends.”23 This is also the case with Paula's Home Cooking (2002–12), the 2007 winner in the Emmy's “Outstanding Lifestyle Host” category. As on Nigella Bites, the program was filmed in Paula Deen's “real” home and shot with a single camera. For instance, Deen introduces the episode “Racing Car Dishes” (figures 3–4) with a voiceover that states, “Some of our friends from Michael's racing club are going to be making a pit stop here for lunch. We're having chicken bog and my brother Bubba's best beer biscuits, and they've got to be ready when these guys get here!” I don't mean to suggest that we take at face value Deen's premise that her friends are coming over for reasons other than television production. What is important is that the attempt is made to narrativize the cooking in terms of Deen's ordinary life, and that the show is in some sense more about her life than it is about cooking: we are expected to be familiar with Michael and Bubba as fixtures in her life. On the same episode, Deen visits a local brewery for the beer to make biscuits, showing viewers what her everyday life is like in Savannah. There is also an attempt to re-temporalize the cooking not in terms of canned television time, but in real time, as if the biscuits really may not be done in time for the guests.
This re-temporalization is achieved first through editing that elides time when necessary to produce the desired conclusion, and second through the imposition of narrative, in particular voiceovers that smooth over the visual cuts with transitional language such as “While those are in the oven, I'll start on the salad.” At each episode's end, Deen is shown enjoying her creations with her guests as the narrative and temporal resolution to the program's labors. Later shows that utilize this convention of culminating in a social event include The Naked Chef (BBC, 1998–2001; aired in syndication on Food Network beginning in 2000), Barefoot Contessa (2002–present), Boy Meets Grill (2002–07), and Everyday Italian (2003–present). In this format, the host typically directly addresses the audience in the instructional component, but the culminating social event takes place without direct address as the host mingles with his or her guests. More important than the instruction is the sense that whatever task is being modeled is extracted from a concrete and homologous set of everyday spaces, habits, and practices, and in particular that it models the everyday temporalities on which lifestyle is premised.
The aesthetics of ordinariness are also manifest in strategies that cultivate intimacy between the televisual subjects and the audience. This can take the form of ordinary people as subjects and contestants, as well as the selection of “ordinary-seeming” celebrities, often filmed at home, to bridge the gap between presenter and viewer at home.24 Many of HGTV's design and makeover programs are exemplary of this use of ordinary people filmed at home, including Kitchen Design (1995), Bed & Bath Design (1995), Bang for Your Buck (2009–11), Divine Design with Candice Olson (1999–2011), Small Space, Big Style (2005–08), and the perennially popular House Hunters. Bang for Your Buck, Kitchen Design, and Bed & Bath Design are low-cost programs that tour recently renovated homes, while House Hunters follows ordinary people on their quest to buy a new house. Such programs' basic rationale is seeing ordinariness recontextualized as lifestyle. Kitchen Design is, as the host declares after the opening credits, “the show that looks at how people create the rooms they want to live in,” implying that seeing the beautiful, functional domestic spaces of others would be valuable in some way to audiences, whether by offering concrete strategies for renovating a home or just for the pleasures of looking. Indeed, host Joan Kohn's opening monologue often concludes with “Let's go touring,” a phrase that constructs and legitimizes touring others' domestic spaces as a common cultural practice. Small Space, Big Style, Bang for Your Buck, Kitchen Design, and Bed & Bath Design tend to feature the homes of older, upper-middle-class professionals whose renovations were made possible by decades of good employment and careful saving rather than through extreme wealth. While some of the homes feature luxury furnishings and were renovated with the help of interior designers and decorators, others are more modest family homes. On Kitchen Design, the final segment is often a “fantasy tour” that showcases a more extravagant renovation. Yet the fantasy tour has the effect of normalizing the homes depicted on the rest of the program as attainable for middle-class viewers.
The ordinariness of lifestyle culture is also evident in the number of home programs that focused on small-space living and other forms of downscaled domesticity in the late 1990s and 2000s, such as Small Space, Big Style (figures 5–6), a program expressly focused on maximizing use of spaces in small homes based on design and DIY choices. On this show, ordinary people take the viewer (and occasionally a host) for a tour of their small apartment or condo and explain the design choices that make the space functional and stylish. Most of the spaces on this show are in expensive urban areas such as New York City and San Francisco, an implicit acknowledgment of the high costs of real estate in major urban areas. Another HGTV program, Design on a Dime (2002–11; figure 7), uses style and DIY décor to aggrandize middle-class homes. A designer visits a homeowner (usually a couple) in need of redecoration. With the help of a licensed contractor who makes custom and DIY versions of both expensive furniture and custom pieces, the designer revamps an entire room with a budget of only a few thousand dollars. Often the designer DIYs a luxury item, such as a vintage 1920s console table, using the contractor's building skills and creative applications of plywood, paint, and other inexpensive materials.
These design programs' focus on ordinariness works to implicate the viewer in their address. That is, they call on viewers to think about the ordinariness depicted onscreen in relation to their own domestic spaces and their enjoyment and management of everyday life. The individuals on Design on a Dime and Small Space, Big Style are constructed as ordinary people for whom a renovation or a redesign is possible. In this construction of the upper middle class and successful retirees as “ordinary,” these home design programs simultaneously provoked and alleviated anxiety about what constituted the real financial prospects of middle-class people. In other words, this focus on normativity rather than showy, extravagant domesticity offered a gauge by which audiences could assess their own relationship to food, family, and home life. Constructing middle- and upper-middle-class domesticity as ideal was necessary to attract an optimal mix of aspirational middle-class audiences in a period of cable expansion.
FROM INSTRUCTION TO INSPIRATION
The second element in the turn to lifestyle on television is the waning of instructional logic. On British how-to programs of the 1970s, Brunsdon et al. find a “didactic insistence on objects and operations, and camera, editing and commentary are governed by the logic of exposition: ‘this is how it is,’ ‘this is what it looks like,’ ‘this is what you do.’”25 Lifestyle programming does retain some of the expository focus of how-to programming, but it is no longer the primary logic, serving more as a pretext for other logics to flourish, such as ordinariness or, as Brunsdon et al. suggest, transformation.26 Instead, editing and framing construct the spectacle and emotional charge of lifestyle through the increased use of close-ups (often to capture reactions after a makeover is revealed), the collapse of labor time through elliptical editing, and the drama of the “after” moment.27
A comparison with PBS programming illustrates this shift. This Old House is a home renovation show that began airing on WGBH Boston in 1979 and is still running. Each season tracks the restoration of an old New England home and provides instruction for do-it-yourselfers in tackling the whole remodeling process, from plumbing and heating to flooring and cabinetry. True to the pedagogical intent of PBS, the instructional component of This Old House is extensive. One episode from 1990 focuses exclusively on the heating system that will be installed in the house, detailing different options (radiant floors, radiators, oil heaters, etc.), explaining the limitations of each, and visiting the German manufacturer that supplies their chosen heating system for a look at the production process. Since each episode focuses on a different issue in the renovation process, this granular focus on a decidedly utilitarian component of the restoration is common. Only the final episode of the season has anything like the “big reveal” of contemporary makeover and design shows.
Alongside this shift from functional to spectacular representational strategies, there is a corresponding shift in taste politics. Informational shows such This Old House, and HGTV hobby shows such as Simply Quilts (1996–2007), are often straightforwardly pedagogical, emphasizing the mastery of a procedure.28 That is, they suggest to the home viewer that there is a right and a wrong way to perform the skill in question. In lifestyle shows, however, there is no sense of competency as a major issue. Rather, the shows instruct audiences in cultivating bourgeois taste and more directly appeal to class aspiration by touting inspiration (and thus fantasies of change, improvement, and mobility) as their dominant mode.29
While Brunsdon's identification of these formal changes is right, I want to highlight another dimension of the waning of how-to logic: its collapse into a much broader, more tenuous, and more affective category of inspiration. Whereas instruction is concerned with the proper measurements and tools and generally with providing all the information a person might need to replicate the project modeled onscreen, inspiration is an affect of possibility, laying out a set of spatialized fantasies for the viewer and the pleasure of merely considering undertaking the advice on offer. Inspiration opens up a realm of daydreaming and reflection on the viewer's everyday life that is made possible more by its ordinary aesthetic than by concrete tools for its achievement. Colin Campbell suggests that because of the way that daydreaming fuses potential consumption scenarios to the lived realities of daily life, “dreaming of a fairly modest alteration in an existing pattern of life may actually provide more pleasure than the most magnificently impossible fantasy, an awareness that the former might come true more than compensating for the greater theoretical pleasure afforded by the latter.”30 In other words, whereas an instructional program might make one specific home improvement project achievable through step-by-step information, lifestyle television fosters generalized dissatisfaction with one's home life, usually experienced as “inspiration”: feelings of possibility and transcendence afforded by a combination of creativity and consumer plenitude. This more diffuse and overarching feeling of inspiration arguably sustains consumer desire in longer-term ways than the instructional program does.
Though Small Space, Big Style, Design on a Dime, and other HGTV lifestyle programs are informational in a superficial way, they do not offer much in the way of specific details about renovations, focusing, rather, on questions of taste in materials and offering inspiration for the viewer at home. Inspiration might be considered a correlate to Campbell's notion of imaginative hedonism, in which modern consumers daydream about integrating new products into their existing lives.31 This process, although it does not always lead directly to consumption, works to enfold individuals into cycles of consumer desire and is thus instrumental in sustaining capitalism. On one episode of Kitchen Design that covers how to mix countertops of different materials in the same space, Joan Kohn asserts, “The big trend today is to use a combination of materials: stones, woods, solid surface materials, metals, each in its own best application.” Rather than exactly explain what each material's best application might be, the program cuts to a montage of tracking shots of several kitchens featuring multiple countertop materials. While the program professes to give tips and advice, then, it ultimately focuses more on covering consumer trends, sustaining interest in renovation culture through inspiration, and generating desires for class mobility and bourgeois taste formations.
Additionally, HGTV real estate programs such as House Hunters and its later spinoff House Hunters International (2006–present; figure 8), which follow “ordinary” people through the process of looking at homes for sale and choosing one over the course of an episode, inspire interest in new homes, fresh starts, and the pleasures of looking at and thinking about home buying. As Mimi White suggests, “The program and its home channel HGTV trade on the values and meanings of American home ownership and its strong affiliations with arrival, success, and security, even achieving the American Dream.”32 Given how infrequently people change their homes, it seems likely that most of audience for House Hunters is watching for inspiration rather than for instruction in actual home buying. That is, the show offers the vicarious pleasures of seeing happiness achieved through the purchase of a new home, solidifying the connections among property, consumption, and notions of the “good life.”
It is not just large-scale renovations that are meant to inspire, but also smaller considerations such as the creative use of space and furniture in the home. On a 2005 episode of Small Space, Big Style, a woman explains how she used custom built-ins to create an additional closet for her tiny New York apartment. The program cuts to a design expert, who provides a takeaway bit of advice for viewers, translating the inspiration of the particular example into potential instruction for the viewer at home. She suggests, “Don't be scared to investigate having built-ins created. Usually they're not that much more expensive than store-bought fixtures, and they'll maximize your space much more efficiently.” On Design on a Dime, the hosts work to creatively adapt and repurpose old materials into glamorous new décor. On one 2011 episode, “Speakeasy Style Dining Room,” the designer uses scrap-wood posts, an old mirror found in the home, and new decorative wood trim to construct an elaborate custom mantelpiece that becomes a focal point of the finished room. Even in the episode's brief scene between the host and builder, in which they discuss their plans for the mantelpiece, it is clear how much exacting labor (measurements, sourcing, etc.) went into its conception and execution, such that none but the most expert DIYers in the home audience could possibly replicate such a piece. Nonetheless, the resourcefulness of the host and her willingness to “play around” with the design and to problem-solve with the builder in its construction serve as inspirational models for the attitude and approach needed to create the most beautiful and functional living space possible.
The change from instruction to inspiration is also evident in Food Network lifestyle shows. While they do model skills, these programs' heavy narrative component situates their instruction in terms of inspiration: cooking is figured as a form of entertainment, a rewarding hobby, and a way to access life's simple pleasures. Food Network's focus on inspiration over instruction is apparent in a range of daytime cooking programs such as Paula's Home Cooking, Barefoot Contessa, Nigella Bites, and The Pioneer Woman (2011–present). These programs focus on celebrity chefs (or charismatic hosts) at home, cooking meals in their daily lives. They rely heavily on extreme close-ups that highlight the sensuality of the ingredients in preparation and generate inspiration through the close engagement with nature and the senses one can access through cooking (figure 9). Helen Powell and Sylvie Prasad identify lifestyle's logic of inspiration when they note that cooking program The Naked Chef “centered on the lifestyle of the chef and offered up the possibility not just of acquiring new culinary skills but also the adoption of a new lifestyle where good food was at its heart.”33 This logic is also evident in the aforementioned trope of concluding these cooking shows with a party or family gathering. On such shows, the instruction in an episode's recipes is important insofar as it inspires a new focus on good food and enjoying life's pleasures.
On Emeril Live!, culinary instruction is downplayed in favor of inspiration in the fact that all ingredients are prechopped and measured, obviating any instruction in such topics as knife skills or preparation. Host Lagasse rarely announces measurements and occasionally forgets the names of ingredients that have been laid out by prep cooks, focusing instead on performing the culinary as pleasure and play. The sparse instruction there is on the show tends to be oriented around affects of pleasure rather than providing tools to the viewer. For example, Lagasse prepares jalapeño poppers and tells the audience that deseeding the peppers is optional. He does not discuss the safety issues surrounding cutting peppers, for instance, or the fact that the seeds contain more heat than the rest of the vegetable, information that might be important if the viewer at home is planning to make the recipe. Instead, he frames cooking with jalapeños as pleasurable and exciting. The food's enticements are amplified by the smells filling the studio that Lagasse asks the audience to acknowledge by his vocalizations of pleasure and by his expressive mugging (eye rolling, swooning) at the use of flavorful ingredients. The camerawork on Emeril Live! further reinforces the logic of inspiration over instruction, utilizing the medium and long shots of late-night television to create a festive, sociable atmosphere (figures 10–12). There are few close-ups of Lagasse's culinary labor, downplaying its importance in the pleasures of the show. As these examples demonstrate, the overall tone of the program, and of Lagasse's performative exuberance, is less about learning how to attain expertise and more about embodying a mode of engagement with food and culinary practice that is full of excitement and inspiration.
Indeed, in replacing detailed instruction with a vaguer sense of inspiration, programs widen the audience from those who are avid home cooks, or actually considering home renovations, to simply anyone who may be watching and can be enticed to consider the aesthetic gratifications of cooking or renovating that programs dramatize. The move from information to inspiration is evident in the hosts' continual exhortation that the practices on display are “simple.” Such exhortations are pervasive on nearly every lifestyle show, particularly cooking programs, and serve to downplay the physical, economic, or material costs of undertaking the project while highlighting its emotional or social gratifications. Even more, focusing on inspiration over instruction eliminates any standards by which a task could be said to be well done and insulates viewers from failure and their potential shortcomings or lack of knowledge. This works to widen the potential audience for networks, and ultimately to intensify lifestyle's imaginative hedonism, depicting consumption as the avenue toward rewarding and beautiful forms of domesticity.
“WHEN WE COME BACK, WE'RE GOING TO HAVE A BIG PARTY!”: SOCIABILITY ON LIFESTYLE TELEVISION
The third important characteristic of the turn to lifestyle on television is its capacity to orient individuals toward the social. As Georg Simmel outlined it, sociability has a utopian dimension, creating “an ideal social world … the only one in which a democracy of equals is possible without friction.”34 Sociability is therefore not only an actual lived condition, but also an ideal one, and it shapes our desires to interact with others. Lifestyle offers itself as a more democratic (because self-initiated) mode of betterment than class and class consciousness. However, lifestyle texts remain preoccupied with class mobility, displacing it onto fantasies of idealized social life through affective exchange and access to the consumer marketplace. The logic of lifestyle as sociability on HGTV and the Food Network is less about impressing guests through display and abundance, as was the case with entertaining texts of the 1980s such as Martha Stewart's, than it is about a form of kinship labor, a way to perform care for one's closest friends and family. More than going out to a restaurant, entertaining family and friends gives one the comfort and ease that “being at home” implies, while affording one the chance to savor togetherness and engage in care practices for others. Home entertaining, in other words, allows people to perform love, devotion, care, sympathy, and other positive affects. Yet it is also contingent on women's labor in the home, a fact that is most clear on the Food Network's lifestyle cooking shows because of the way that home cooking has traditionally been constructed as domestic labor. Moreover, the sociable lifestyle constructed on both networks' shows is contingent on, if not overt consumerism, then the material comforts that consumption enables.
On HGTV's design programs, the emphasis is on the rhythms and practices of daily life and how creative design and storage solutions can facilitate more sociable and rewarding engagement with others. For example, on Small Space, Big Style, the house tours and attendant voiceover describe how space-saving and functional design help to facilitate an enjoyment of domesticity in general and entertaining guests at home in particular. On one 2007 episode, “The Space Fits like a Glove,” condo dweller Sunil describes how he made minimalist design choices to facilitate home entertaining. As he speaks in voiceover, a time-lapse sequence begins (the viewer is cued by the flat-screen television, which is on and moving rapidly through programming) in which Sunil sets out some food. Guests arrive with a case of wine, glasses, and other party supplies, and they congregate around the table and socialize. The guests finally fill their glasses and raise them in a toast, which is conducted in normal time as the time-lapse sequence abruptly ends. This time-lapse technique is employed in nearly every house tour on Small Space, Big Style, and it serves to condense a presumably leisurely social event into a brief, digestible sequence. In so doing, the program allegorizes the ways in which sociability can be condensed into small-space living. It dramatizes the design of the space by showing how guests cluster in seating areas and make use of specifically designed zones over the course of the event. Such programs implicitly exhort viewers to entertain guests, no matter how cramped or seemingly unsuitable one's living space may be.
Indeed, social gathering in the home is a refrain that is repeated at the beginning and end of most makeover programs, including Color Splash (2007–13), Divine Design with Candice Olson, and Design on a Dime, providing a narrative framework and raison d'être for the redesign. Quite often during such shows' introductions, homeowners list a desire to facilitate more frequent entertaining as a reason for renovation. For example, each episode of Divine Design with Candice Olson undertakes a redesign of one room for “ordinary people” whose needs are not being met by their current space: on one episode, a Trinidadian-Indian couple with children and a large extended family want a living room space that is more suitable for the big family gatherings they host (figure 13). Olson states in voiceover, “Jyoti and Peter are happiest when their home is a family gathering place. And because their 1980s suburban house is the largest in the family, it's the natural choice to host the whole gang for celebrations throughout the year and especially during the holidays. … But the room where everyone gathers has little furniture, an oversized eyesore of a fireplace, way too much mirror, and an old carpet that shows evidence of busy toddlers.” “Eyesores” such as dirty carpet and excessive mirrors are primarily problems of taste, rather than elements that would actively prevent socializing at home. Nonetheless, they are framed as impossible barriers to entertaining. Later, when introducing the couple, Olson asks them, “Now, it's party central over here … [you're] cooking all the time?” The end of the episode, like those in Small Space, Big Style, utilizes B-roll of a family gathering in the new space, showing how a wet bar, L-shaped sectional, and crystal chandelier not only create distinct socializing spaces within the room, but also add functionality and festivity to the space.
A concern with sociability not only is manifest on HGTV's programs, but also underwrites the rationale for many of the Food Network's cooking programs. Despite taking place in a studio, Emeril Live! works to evoke a kind of intimate sociability. The very fact that a studio audience is present for the cooking, and that some are invited to taste the food that Lagasse prepares (figure 14), suggests that the program is not as much about learning to cook as it is about staging an occasion for lived social relations and therefore modeling those relations as ideal for audiences at home. Lagasse performs for his guests in the same way a home cook might perform for his guests; rather than laboring ahead of time or hidden in the kitchen, as earlier eras of cooking instruction suggested, Lagasse turns cooking for guests into a social event. What is most striking about Emeril Live! is the audience's extreme responsiveness to Lagasse as he works. The camera frequently intercuts close-ups of rapt faces from the audience with footage of Lagasse cooking, demonstrating how the work is a performance not simply of culinary expertise, but also of conviviality. His performance style is improvisational, and studio audiences respond enthusiastically to his energy. Certain ingredients that are particularly flavor-enhancing (garlic, hot peppers, beer, butter) regularly garner “oohs” and applause. Lagasse's banter is also marked by a recognition of the festive atmosphere the show produces, as in his exclamation, “When we come back, we're going to have a big party!” before a commercial break. As such, the program invites viewers to engage in food as pleasure and gives them a reason to come together socially. Although Emeril Live! has been discussed by Kathleen Collins and by the press as the key program initiating Food Network's model of celebrity-based programming that drove its success, I want to highlight that it was not only the celebrity that accrued around powerful performers such as Lagasse that made the network successful, but also the ways in which their programs sought to enter into affective, sociable relations with audiences and to invite viewers to do as much in their own relationship to food.35
Because lifestyle logic emphasizes domestic sociability as ideal, however, there are gender and class hierarchies at work in the forms of sociability that it espouses. The domestic space remains fraught with classed and gendered expectations of labor. Indeed, the forms of labor, and the relationship between labor and socializing, are somewhat different on Emeril Live! than on the female-hosted lifestyle cooking programs. Feminist scholars have noted that cooking is rendered as masculine and leisurely fun when it is done for others performatively, as it is on Emeril Live!, rather than as domestic labor.36 As Elizabeth Nathanson elaborates regarding the hybrid talk/cooking show The Chew (ABC, 2011–present), “such creative leisure is rewarded through the public format of a talk show that illustrates that while cooking may be fun, it is pleasurable when it is a social act done with and for others, and when it reaches a logical conclusion with the feast.”37 Lagasse and other performative male chefs therefore must be seen as performing a different kind of sociability than the women cooks on Nigella Feasts, Barefoot Contessa, and Paula's Home Cooking, who frame cooking's sociable dimensions in terms of family and kinship labor. These female-hosted cooking programs continue to premise their cooking instruction on everyday forms of domestic sociality, whether cooking for a casual dinner get-together in the backyard, or for an afternoon football party, or simply for one's family on a weeknight.
Moreover, while many of the men who host cooking shows on the Food Network are professional chefs (Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Oliver), most of the female lifestyle hosts are not trained chefs, but instead are marked by some form of class privilege. (There are exceptions, of course, and Food Network has in recent years attempted to mitigate this gender imbalance with the hiring of female chef hosts such as Anne Burrell and Alex Guarnaschelli.) Male chefs on the Food Network such as Lagasse or Bobby Flay, even when hosting lifestyle shows such as Emeril Live! or Boy Meets Grill, which Flay hosts from his home, are figured as experts and performers, and Flay avoids being implicated in the domestic by filming from his backyard grill. In contrast, female hosts such as Nigella Lawson, Giada de Laurentiis, and Ina Garten are depicted as accomplished (but not professional) home cooks, and this is emphasized through the use of their home kitchens and the framing of their cooking as domestic care work. Because there is usually no studio audience on female-hosted cooking programs, Nathanson argues, they “more closely replicate the experience of cooking at home” and therefore demonstrate that “‘feminine’ cooking” is “homebound.”38
More than this, these shows depict the women's culinary labors in the home as a form of kinship or care work. In the opening credits of Paula's Home Cooking, Super-8 footage of Deen as a young mother in the 1960s are interspersed with close-ups of her hands cooking, articulating her kitchen labors through the warm, nostalgic feelings of family gatherings (figure 15). On Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten regularly frames her dishes in terms of her husband, Jeffrey's, enjoyment. On the episode “Tex Mex” (2003), Garten mixes up some guacamole while confiding to the audience, “These are going to be so good when Jeffrey gets home, with chips and margaritas, while the tequila-lime chicken cooks. Gotta have something special when he walks in the door.” This kind of talk about whom the dish is for and how much they will enjoy it is a near-constant component of the dialogue on Barefoot Contessa, and it is also common throughout Paula's Home Cooking, Nigella Bites, Everyday Italian, and other lifestyle cooking programs that culminate in a scene of family and/or guests enjoying what has been prepared in the episode. On these programs, cooking is framed as a sociable pursuit that one does for others; in order to properly care for others, one must not merely provide sustenance, but also offer “inspired” culinary experiences that consider color and freshness on the plate as well as the overall aesthetic experience of dining with carefully chosen elements.
Finally, on lifestyle programs, sociability—like inspiration—is consistently underwritten by consumerism. While some of these lifestyles are manifestly upper-class—Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa in particular performs her East Coast upper-classness deliberately, as did Martha Stewart—lifestyle cooking programs are also often marked by regional or ethnic culture. Giada de Laurentiis of Everyday Italian, for instance, has a large Italian family and usually prepares Italian cuisine for family get-togethers. Paula Deen and her sons frequently prepare Southern-style comfort food together as its own act of socializing. Both Jamie Oliver's and Nigella Lawson's styles are inflected by British culture, in the form of puddings and sausages, as well as by the Indian cuisines popular in Britain.
However, although these programs perform ordinariness through middle-class forms of sociability such as Game Day parties and backyard get-togethers, the class privilege of these hosts in their “real” lives cannot be ignored. De Laurentiis was born into a family of powerful Hollywood producers, Garten is a former White House policy analyst who had a successful career in Washington before starting her lifestyle brand, and Lawson is the daughter of British Chancellor Nigel Lawson and was married to billionaire art collector Charles Saatchi. While not every lifestyle expert has such an exceptional class background, it is common enough to suggest that lifestyle expertise—and the opportunities to perform lifestyle on television—are a by-product of wealth and class privilege. As Nathanson notes, Lawson's and De Laurentiis's cooking programs “make food and cooking appear glamorous, shooting individual ingredients in high-contrast shots, stressing the pure beauty of each ingredient's colors and textures. Such a representation of the ‘good life’ is contingent on class privilege, for simplicity is achieved when each ingredient is special and ‘high-quality.’”39
To undertake lifestyle as a form of everyday living, and to be in a position to develop one's lifestyle talents into television franchises, is clearly a form of class privilege. This matters because, as these programs emphasize, it is the personal lives of the hosts that are the basis of instruction, and despite their focus on middle-class forms of socializing, the homes in which these activities are filmed belie the forms of power that enable lifestyle pursuits to take place. More than a form of class privilege, however, lifestyle practices and pursuits are also a burden that fall most heavily on women. This means that through the instruction and inspiration that lifestyle programs provide, it falls on women to provide increasingly detailed and aestheticized experiences of everyday life for their friends and families, despite the high costs in terms of time, money, and labor. As Diane Negra notes, “Women are charged as guardians of lifestyle which is itself all-defining in an era in which living the fully aestheticized life has become a significant priority in mass media representation.”40 On these and other lifestyle shows, then, although sociability is presented as an ideal form of everyday living for both genders, the labor involved in producing and sustaining it at home remains women's work.
Lifestyle television comprises a cluster of domestic, instructional formats that emerged in the latter half of the 1990s to colonize a range of commercial channels. Telecommunications deregulation provided the conditions under which lifestyle content became commercially advantageous. In an era that was increasingly competitive and niche-oriented for television producers, lifestyle offered a way to hail niche audiences in as “mass” a way as possible. In particular, HGTV and the Food Network borrowed lifestyle's aspirational and consumerist logics as a way to consolidate viewership in a niche topic with the widest possible appeal. Scripps's development into a lifestyle media conglomerate indexes a general moment of proliferation in the late 1990s when lifestyle media became a dominant form of television programming in the United States, particularly on niche cable networks, due to the way that they combined both niche and mass appeals. It is thus bound up in the regulatory and economic conditions that precipitated the proliferation of niche cable networks.
In this process of cable expansion, lifestyle became articulated to channels that focused on domestic programming in a variety of formats, and as they honed in on ordinariness, inspiration, and small-scale sociability, they became more narrowly articulated to specific programs that embodied these traits throughout the 2000s. Through the turn to lifestyle on television, consumerism was manifest in programs' interest in social gathering and in the way that lifestyle television's fantasies of “ordinary” domestic sociality nonetheless were offered by hosts in positions of wealth and upper-class privilege. Even as lifestyle programs constructed ordinariness, inspiration, and small-scale entertaining in terms of middle-class lifestyles, they masked the aspirational consumption and class climbing that is still part of lifestyle's broader cultural form. The cooking and design shows on the Food Network and HGTV during this period showcased homes and domestic entertaining practices that rhetorically value creativity over consumption, yet they nonetheless offered consumerist forms of imaginative hedonism. Because of their emphasis on consuming in a generalized, diffuse way, they adhered audiences, and women in particular, to capitalism in affective ways. What matters is not the budget, but the desire to renovate, and to perform middle-class domesticity, at any scale. This is the innovation in television's shift to lifestyle. Its logics of ordinariness, inspiration, and sociability fused consumption to altogether more vague and affective everyday practices than had previous instructional/hobbyist programs, despite being essentially about the same topics. In so doing, lifestyle programs sustained interest in consumption and domesticity for women, despite, or perhaps because of, the waning of traditional forms of middle-class life during this time. The idealization of normative middle-class life on these programs renders lifestyle a form of feminized care work that women perform for others.