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Avoiding haters on shows like ‘House Hunters International’

What seemed cute on the set can appear obnoxious on TV, and trolls on social media won't be kind

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our top headlines will appear in your inbox each Monday and Thursday.
Photo: HGTV

We saw it happen again. A young couple from the States goes on one of those cable television shows, pretending to search for a property in another country.

And they promptly got trashed by social media trolls. What went wrong?

Most people on “House Hunters International,” “Mexico Life,” “Caribbean Life” and other shows like it are novices when it comes to appearing in front of a camera and acting out scenes. But the producers need some sort of story line to drive the action. So they contrive a conflict — he wants the city, but she wants to be near cafes and shops, for example — to make the episode more interesting.

This is tricky for everyday people. Most of them seem lovely and interesting, but others come off as just plain mean or obnoxious. And it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault.

Why do the shows’ participants put themselves out there to begin with? It’s not for the money — the pay is minimal, at least on “HHI,” which pays a reported US$500 fee.

And it takes a lot of work. There’s a rigorous application and interview process, an audition tape and then, if selected, long days that add up to about 30 exhausting hours of production time. They appear to be zipping through each property, but in reality, they spend about six hours at each home. Plus they shoot B-roll of the protagonists strolling around the city, visiting various places, and finally, fake-arguing over house one, two or three.

After all that, it’s heartbreaking to get hateful, blistering responses on social media.

“I’m sick and tired of Americans coming to another country and demanding American living,” wrote one commenter on YouTube after a Los Angeles couple toured central Mexico on “HHI.” The couple seemed very pleasant, but some scenarios that intended to inject some personality into the show got them trolled on social media.

A common mistake: An emphasis on luxury living in a relatively poor country will feel off-putting to many viewers.

“This couple is too materialistic for Mexico; family and culture comes first, not facade,” wrote a viewer.

In one scene, one of the prospective renters appeared a little too much at home.

“So rude to just drop onto someone’s sofa,” a commenter complained.

Participants are not necessarily on-screen professionals, and they are at a disadvantage at knowing how they will come off in the final cut. The show’s narrative demands the protagonists size up problematic properties and bicker with their spouse or partner. This is dangerous territory for a non-actor, and could make the would-be reality star look like a snob, a doofus or a bully.

Try watching past episodes more closely and take notes on what makes each character either likable or despicable. The likable ones are embracing change. Appearing to be unwilling to adapt is not a good look.

So maybe it’s time to stop portraying first-world clients who are insisting on double sinks in the master bedroom in homes that would most likely have neither.

An entitled 22-year-old with no visible means of support while declaring a “dated” kitchen a “non-starter” is cringe-y. Viewers aren’t feeling sorry for someone on a tropical island looking for an oven to fit a Thanksgiving turkey.

It’s also time for a moratorium on jokes about the tiny closets that won’t fit all the shoes that will apparently be arriving in a giant crate.

“I didn’t realize the trees were so big in this country” is the type of observation best kept to one’s self. “It’s got a European vibe!” can seem tone-deaf while intending to praise a Latin American city.

“HHI” shoots, and re-shoots, a scene until it’s to their liking. But don’t get punchy. The shot where you start getting silly could become the take they use on the air. Editors like unguarded moments for their final cut.

The real estate agent can also invite negative feedback by appearing greedy.

“The realtor is a leach showing a renter a place 30 percent over their budget,” a commenter said. But that’s not a fair observation. The prices aren’t always real, the properties aren’t necessarily on the market and the buyers aren’t actually shopping for homes. They already settled in their new city. By the time the episode airs, they may have already returned to their original home.

It’s just meant to be a half-hour of light entertainment.

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