How HGTV Maintains Its Grip on Comfort Television by Constantly EvolvingVariety — Daniel D'Addario
When David Bromstad, the host of HGTV’s “My Lottery Dream Home,” won that network’s reality series “Design Star” in 2006, the network was a very different place. “Coming in through a reality show, I was just at the start of the big changes that were happening,” he recalls. “When HGTV started, there were still crafts in the morning and quilting — it was a whole other genre.”
For the network that began its life in 1994 as a safe place to land for those seeking soothing infotainment, “Design Star” was a tentative first step to introduce reality programming. Today, as part of the Discovery Inc. family, the channel is practically a star factory, minting talent as well-known for their distinctive flair — and personal dramas — as for the help they can proffer in design and renovation. “I’ve always wanted HGTV to be pushed a little bit when it comes to our personalities, letting our true freak flag fly,” Bromstad says, “and they’re doing that now. It’s people being people, but they’re bringing more of their people-ness to it.”
The network’s shift happened first by evolution and then by revolution. “There was a time, years ago,” Discovery chief lifestyle brands officer Kathleen Finch says, “that one of our secretly held mottos was ‘Get the talent out of the way — the star is the couch.’” Finch pinpoints the breakout success of Drew and Jonathan Scott’s “Property Brothers” — which initially aired on a Canadian network in 2011 after HGTV rejected the pilot — as a turning point. “For the first time in HGTV history, we had heartthrobs on the air.” Now the self-styled hunks are joined by the once-married, California-chic Tarek El Moussa and Christina Anstead of “Flip or Flop”; the still-married, Pinterest-ready Ben and Erin Napier of “Home Town”; and the former “Brady” kids on “A Very Brady Renovation,” an event miniseries that became the network’s highest-rated series in various key demographics.
It was proof of concept of a goal of Discovery’s; when Jane Latman, general manager of the corporation’s Travel Channel, was shifted to lead HGTV in April 2019, it was with the mandate, Finch said at the time, to make HGTV “a little bit louder.” Nearly a year later, the network prepares to launch spinoffs of “Flip or Flop” and to begin production on a “Home Town”-on-the-road event, and is leaning into a schedule that looks less like an even, unchanging mix than what Latman calls “a heart monitor.”
“My goal,” she says, “is to have more distinctive shows, to have peaks and valleys.” This means jolting, still further, the sense of HGTV as a place for purposeful stolidity, the formula its base craves. As Latman says, “The audience wants consistency. They say, ‘Don’t change a thing,’ but if you don’t, they will stop watching.”
|“My Lottery Dream Home” host David Bromstad assesses a room with professional poker player Mark Herm and friend Annie Grisafi|
Courtesy of HGTV
That means not just events like the Brady series or “Home Town Takeover” — in which the Mississippi-based Napiers find another small community on which to fix their spotlight — but also an increased embrace of human drama. This month, HGTV began its revival of the former ABC series “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” a show known as much for its participants’ tearjerking backstories as for its feats of construction. Latman also cited the upcoming “Flip or Flop” spinoff “Flipping 101,” in which host El Moussa mentors novice home-flippers. “They mess up, and he gets mad at them. You’re along for an emotional journey.”
The lean into personality may be a shift that suits the times: Even in the coziness of home there’s room for a little drama. “With social media,” Latman says, “people’s lives are really public. HGTV could become too aspirational. If you’re seeing too much perfection all the time, the audience will ask themselves, ‘What does that have to do with my life?’”
If HGTV’s own renovation was kicked off by the Property Brothers, it was cemented by El Moussa and Anstead, who publicly separated in 2016, some three years into the smash-hit run of their show. “There’s obviously tension, which we follow on camera,” Finch says. “I’m very proud we opened the door to that. It’s not the kind of thing we thought HGTV viewers would want, and they absolutely did.”
The show had always depicted precarity; in El Moussa’s telling, “Flip or Flop” picked up after the couple decided on a whim to shoot a sizzle reel with a local production company, began as “a wild and crazy idea.” El Moussa was only just setting out on his home-flipping career: “They wanted me to do 13 houses in 10 months” in the first season. “I’d done three houses in a year. But I had signed the contract.” But the very public divorce was unlike anything that had come before. “They wanted us to show a little more real life, but people just want to see the transformation, so we pulled it back,” says Anstead. Her upcoming spinoff, “Christina on the Coast,” has “a B story in every episode showing what’s going on in my life.”
Today, “Flip or Flop” depicts two amiable co-workers who occasionally exchange barbs; in a recent episode, El Moussa notes that there is money hidden in the walls of the home they’re flipping, but “we’re divorced now, so you don’t get half.” “Let’s just be real about it,” El Moussa says. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. It was gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, but it’s what I do for a living. Everything was riding on me doing my job. But we film together every single day, and life goes on.”
“I think one of the most rewarding things about a beautiful reveal,” says Loren Ruch, the network’s senior VP of production and development, “is knowing the struggle that went into it. Tarek and Christina’s life has been such an open book, and to not cover that would be us not doing our job.” Elsewhere on the network, too, there has been a shift away from perfection: “Attainability and aspiration are super important, but so is showing our
fallibility. In the real world, your tile may arrive two weeks after you expected it.”
Which makes stars able to be themselves on camera all the more valuable. “I love meeting new HGTV talent,” says Jonathan Scott, co-star of “Property Brothers.” “One thing I say to them is, when you go on a talk show, they’re not having you on to show five trending paint colors. We’re trying to find a way to have fun. This is your dream home — it should be fun and enjoyable.” The gift of gab matters as much as pure expertise, maybe more; as for whether hosts on the network are educators or entertainers, Jonathan’s brother Drew says, “It’s a hybrid area. We see ourselves as therapists in the home space. What really resonates is seeing people do what they love.”
And people like that can come from anywhere: The Scotts were working in real estate to finance dreams of becoming an actor (Drew) and a magician (Jonathan) before their detour. Even further afield, Ben and Erin Napier were discovered after her wedding-stationery company got her a write-up in Southern Weddings magazine; despite the pair’s lack of prior on-camera experience, she says, the only notes pertain to camera blocking. “The content is: Be yourself. They never ask us to say something more succinct, which they probably should, because we can get long-winded. But what you get is what you get.”
|Ben and Erin Napier of “Home Town Takeover”|
Courtesy of HGTV
And many viewers are fascinated with what they’ve gotten: The Napiers’ stories of refurbishing old homes in Laurel, Miss., draw on both local pride and the unpredictability of the restoration process. “A lot of shows like to have that manufactured drama,” says Ben Napier. “On our show, they let us break the mold — if the house doesn’t have any drama, then that episode doesn’t have any drama.” That means when there is a setback, it resonates all the more.
In HGTV’s past, “there was a bit of a copycat syndrome,” says Ruch. “One or two things worked, and people tried to replicate those in every show.” What has, perhaps, kept HGTV from being a victim of its own recent success is the degree to which it’s diversified within a narrow subject. The Napiers look, perhaps, a little like former network stars Chip and Joanna Gaines — but only if you squint — and very little like others on the network’s air.
The Gaineses are proof positive of the power of HGTV and its refusal to repeat itself. The empire built on the success of the now-concluded series “Fixer Upper” has grown to include the Magnolia Network, a dedicated channel within Discovery set to launch Oct. 4. (“We don’t really care which one our audience is watching,” Finch, the Discovery executive, says.) In the absence of the Gaineses, now newer and established stars are creating franchises of their own.
By building out a suite of ambitious talent and emphasizing how they’re different from one another, HGTV has found success beyond its longtime reputation as a landing space away from the world’s troubles. As Bromstad, the network’s longest-tenured on-air personality, puts it, “What HGTV has done over my 14 years there has been incredible. They went from a very buttoned-up organization to an organization with some buttons undone, the tie loosened — and having a great time.”