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Real estate agents are now television stars who are as big as the houses they sell

Ryan Serhant and his team of brokers aim to become the No. 1 real estate firm in New York City in their new Netflix show.
Courtesy of Netflix

  • Television producers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato founded “Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles” almost 20 years ago.
  • This gave rise to a new genre of programmes that dealt with the professional pressures and personal tensions in the lives of real estate agents.
  • Bailey and Barbato analyze the appeal of the genre at the premiere of their latest show, “Owning Manhattan,” with star realtor Ryan Serhant.

A Los Angeles real estate agent may be single-handedly responsible for launching two decades of reality TV.

In 1994, producers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato arrived in Los Angeles from New York City and needed a place to live. Friends recommended agent Debby Berg, and they fell in love. Berg had a huge personality, drove “a huge gold Mercedes” and was so small she had to sit on the Yellow Pages phone book to see over the dashboard, Bailey and Barbato told Business Insider.

“Every time you got in her car, you were kind of taking your life into your own hands,” Bailey said.

The trio toured LA together and Berg found them a four-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills that she described as “Brigadoon,” the fairytale Scottish village from the 1954 film.

But the process gave him an idea: real estate agents could be stars as big as the houses they sell.

Bailey and Barbato went on to produce “Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles,” which followed the lives of realtors selling luxury homes in neighborhoods like Brentwood and Beverly Hills. By the sixth season in 2013, episodes averaged over 1 million viewers. Over the years, realtors like Tracy Tutor and the Altman brothers became nationally known figures with huge social media followings.

Bravo launched spinoffs in New York, Miami and San Francisco, and streaming giant Netflix produced its own version with shows like “Selling Sunset,” “Selling the OC” and “Buying Beverly Hills.”

Now Bailey and Barbato are launching another real estate show – “Owning Manhattan,” premiering on Netflix on June 28 – with one of their “Million Dollar Listing New York” stars: Ryan Serhant.

Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey are the masterminds behind “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Million Dollar Listing”.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Now 39, Serhant has used his television career to gain a huge social media following. He has over 2 million followers on Instagram. According to his website, he has made $8 billion in sales to date and opened his own brokerage firm.

The couple also produces “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which won 29 Primetime Emmys in 16 seasons and created dozens of drag superstars. They told Business Insider they believe in the star power of agents and say there are clear similarities between the world of drag and real estate.

“Realtors are like drag queens,” said Barbato. “They’re self-made men. They put on a show for you.”

It is no coincidence that many agents in Los Angeles and New York are former actors themselves, he added.

One time, the two were visiting Gore Vidal’s house in Los Angeles for an open house when a dead rat appeared in the pool. Without batting an eyelid, they and the real estate agent told everyone present that it was a “sign of good luck.”

“He’s a born entertainer,” Bailey said.

Real estate was not easy to sell for television managers at first

The cast of Barbato and Bailey’s new show “Owning Manhattan” on Netflix.
Courtesy of Netflix

Bailey and Barbato said real estate agents were not previously an obvious talent for television.

They said the biggest obstacle was convincing broadcasters that the details of the deal included a storyline that the audience could understand.

Closing became a major obstacle. In real estate, deals fall through all the time and prospective buyers back out at the last minute. Agents can lose a client for a variety of reasons, or a seller can decide to stay after all. The producing pair have learned to trust the process and pursue more storylines than actually make it to the air.

“You have to be willing to follow a story that may not end the way you want it to,” said Barbato. For “Owning Manhattan,” the two said they filmed 20 different sales listings represented by Serhant and his fellow brokers, but only seven of them resulted in deals.

The public naturally wants to get a glimpse behind the scenes and see how others live, and sometimes it’s best to let the agents work their magic and sell the fantasy of the home, they said.

In the first episode of “Owning Manhattan,” Serhant shows a listing for the world’s tallest apartment building, the three-story penthouse in Central Park Tower, which is asking $195 million. Standing on the highest terrace in New York City, he tells another broker that a billionaire who was touring the space had a very specific question.

“If I put a ping pong table here, would it be the highest ping pong table in the world?” Serhant recalled the billionaire asking.

The producers like to focus on the economic drama

Although the realtors’ strong personalities can be fascinating draws, producers say they prefer to focus on business rather than interpersonal conflict.

“We’re really interested in the transactional element, not the soap,” Barbato said.

In “Owning Manhattan,” viewers experience Serhant live and firsthand as he tries to close a deal for the world’s tallest residential building.

“You’re not just buying luxury, you’re buying size,” he says in the show’s first episode, pointing to the windows, which are among the largest single-pane windows in the world. He also stresses that the prestige object is “higher than helicopters” and their usual flight path.

Serhant then boasts about his “buydar,” his ability to sense when a buyer is serious. Standing above the clouds, he points to another luxury building below him and tells the agent that its penthouse just sold for $22,000 per square foot. Since the Central Park Tower apartment is only asking $14,000 per square foot, it’s practically a bargain, he argues on the show.

In “Owning Manhattan,” viewers will follow Serhant as he tries to make his eponymous brokerage firm the number one in New York. They are already “the largest real estate brokerage firm in the history of the known universe,” he says to the camera with a wink.

The audience will have to wait and see whether this is true.

When in doubt, producers have learned to let the houses themselves tell the story.

“There is a map of the human mind in these qualities,” Bailey said.

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