Home & Garden Television is the mac and cheese of cable — video comfort food. And, like that perennial favorite, it sells very well. Last year, HGTV was the third-most-watched cable network after ESPN and Fox News.
In a recent feature on the company, Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith attributed the network’s success to the “escapist appeal of looking at other people’s beautiful homes” in a year rife with conflict. “The relentlessly pleasant programming is a comfort, especially in hard times,” he wrote.
But there’s more to HGTV’s appeal than mere blandness. “It’s not easy to create content that people are passionate about and somewhat addicted to that is somewhat repetitive,” Ken Lowe, chief executive of parent company Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., told Smith. HGTV’s shows succeed because they tap deep longings.
For starters, they’re intriguing. Rather than rely on conflict to engage viewers, they offer a small mystery: Which place will the house hunters choose? How will the renovation turn out? They keep you hanging on until the big reveal. The formula draws the viewer into the story, inviting speculations and judgments.
Then there’s recognition. Watching HGTV, you see a broader swath of North Americans (including Canadians) than you usually encounter on mainstream TV: youth ministers and medical sales reps, black marketing managers and South Asians who don’t work in tech, lesbian farmers and home-schooling moms, people who live in Fargo, North Dakota, or Pensacola, Florida, or Waco, Texas, home of the hit show “Fixer Upper.” They speak with regional accents and come in all body types. And they’re all presented respectfully, as fine people the viewer can identify with. It’s the opposite of schadenfreude-driven train-wreck TV.
It’s uncynical. What makes HGTV feel so wholesome isn’t merely its lack of profanity but its lack of snark. Everyone is sincere and polite, sometimes obstinate but never mean. Writing about “Fixer Upper” hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines for Texas Monthly, New York journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner marveled at their authentic humility and humor. “They’re like that in person, funny and unguarded and with no fast answers,” she wrote. No wonder they easily weathered a brief controversy BuzzFeed tried to gin up over their pastor’s views on gays. They just don’t seem like haters.
On HGTV, optimism and love abound. Those qualities reflect the fundamental appeal of the network’s formula: It reverses entropy and celebrates home.
Although budgets feature prominently, the network’s house-flipping shows aren’t really about money. Rather, they offer the thrill of watching something deteriorated revive. Replacing corroded pipes and shoring up sagging foundations is as important to the drama as ripping out hideous wallpaper or installing new countertops. The makeovers aren’t merely cosmetic. Something deeper than fashion is at stake. On HGTV, decay isn’t a permanent condition, and anything can be repaired. Things get better.
Over time, HGTV has looked increasingly like just HTV, as the network focuses on the more emotionally resonant component of its identity: home. A house isn’t just an investment or even a place to live. It’s the embodiment of ideals — how we want to live and who we want to be. We imagine “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House,” as Meghan Daum titled her astute and funny memoir about her search for “domestic integrity.”
On HGTV, those ideals are all about family and friends. Homeowners say things like, “We’re doing this for our family” and “This is where our kids are going to grow up.” They picture their kids running around in the backyard and refer to their own happy childhoods. B-roll shows families making dinner together or playing in the park. Many episodes feature newlyweds, visibly pregnant women, and couples who’ve been living with their parents — an arrangement the network never stigmatizes — and are ready to set out on their own. But fear not, single people: If you’re on HGTV, you have a passel of friends and entertain frequently around your kitchen island or backyard grill. No one is lonely here.
Sure, much of this appeal is a fantasy. Your life is still your life, even if your house is brand new. Entropy will have its way. But when trapped in an airport with an inescapable TV, instead of 24-hour news it would certainly be nice to watch a little house flipping.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, The New York Times and Forbes.