Reality bites as winner takes all on The Block

The much anticipated Block finale fell flat on Sunday night when three of the luxury properties struggled to attract bids above the reserve at auction. While two couples celebrated big wins in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, others wept as months of work came to almost nought.

The finale might have had a funereal vibe but the Nine Network certainly had cause for celebration as it smashed ratings records. The shock outcome has sparked calls for Nine to tweak the format of the show and even offer the failed contestants compensation.

After all, it can’t be fair that the Network made a killing while those who did the hard yards go home practically empty handed. Although you can’t help but feel sympathy for the jilted “Blockheads”, The Block is a “Reality TV” show and on Sunday night reality finally came crashing down on the contestants.

The Block promotes and reinforces the home as the centrepiece of “the Australian Dream”. The home has long been a powerful cultural symbol in Australia. Linked to the romanticisation of colonialisation in popular culture, home ownership represents the fruits of hard work and an expression of individual property rights.

As home ownership exploded in the 1950s and 60s it came to represent not only the product of effort but also a pathway to success, an asset that ensured long-term financial security, independence and wealth.

The Block reworks these themes. The contestants are gifted with rundown buildings and told that with a lot of blood, sweat and tears (and more tears and a tonne of designer cushions!) they can make a lot of money – pocketing any profits made above the reserve on auction day.

While the contestants don’t own the properties they are renovating, the creation of a home is promoted as a fast-track to wealth, success and happiness. Indeed, creating the ultimate designer home is the goal. As the homes take shape and are transformed from drab to fab the contestants win acclaim for their efforts from a team of expert judges.

The home must be the best it can be, for that maximises the prospects of success on auction day. Hard work results in reward.

On Sunday night, this Australian dream became a nightmare when the market passed its judgement on the contestant’s efforts. Here the grim reality was laid bare: it doesn’t matter how hard you work, win or lose – it’s the market that decides. And in the modern economy, winners are grinners. The market is brutal.

It’s a message that was hammered home after the winning couple, Simon and Shannon, conceded they “considered” sharing their prize money, but decided against it. After all, it’s a competition and they won it fair and square.

The sad thing is they are right. There is much about The Block that is removed from real life, but the outcome rings all too true.

It’s sad that after 10 weeks of work some of the contestants earned the equivalent of a risible $7 an hour. It’s even sadder that there are people in our community who do this for years and years on end, without the prospect of more glamorous careers on television at the end.

It’s sad that the dream home proved a mirage, but in reality the home no longer provides a clear pathway to financial success. Indeed, less than 70 per cent of Australian households are owner occupied and just 30 per of these own homes outright. Home owners are increasingly struggling with mortgages and debt, while others simply can’t afford to break into the market at all.

Today the Australian dream is just that – a dream; and one that is no longer an aspiration but simply beyond the reach of far too many. There are winners and losers and it isn’t fair. The Block exposed this grim reality on Sunday night and to change it we need to start a more ambitious renovation – this time on our economic system.

This piece was first published on ABC’s The Drum on 15 October 2014. 

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