HGTV Hits Nail on Head

Aug 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The cable channel with the most “Curb Appeal” these days is Home & Garden Television, which is on an 18-month growth streak, the hottest run since Scripps Networks launched HGTV a decade ago.

Reminiscent of the formula for the home makeover series “Curb Appeal,” the channel has transformed itself from a TV home that has good bones but little pizzazz into a spiffy-looking property that suddenly is the envy of the other homeowners on the cable block.

Under one roof, viewers and advertisers find a safe and fertile environment. HGTV’s affluent, educated viewers are guaranteed programming that is aimed directly at what HGTV President Burton Jablin calls the “sweet spot,” in which storytelling and an entertainment quotient are balanced with informational, even aspirational, content. And they’ll talk it up with friends and acquaintances.

HGTV advertisers, a group that has grown as robustly as the ratings, are guaranteed viewers who believe the ads are relevant, informative and trustworthy, according to a Scripps-commissioned viewer engagement study last winter.

“Our viewers think of the advertising as a resource,” said Jon Steinlauf, Scripps Networks senior VP of advertising sales.

In that same survey, conducted by Simmons Market Research Bureau, HGTV ranked third among 35 cable and broadcast networks under the heading “You like to talk to people about this channel,” behind only Comedy Central and TLC.

Increasing Its Reach

“It’s a wonderful cable branding story, because HGTV defies the common wisdom about niche cable networks, which is that they are only for those people who do those things, you know, who decorate their homes, landscape their terraces,” said Erica Gruen, a principal in consultancy firm Quantum Media.

“HGTV is an example of a niche cable network that has successfully applied the ethos of what their brand is about and made that ethos appeal to people who are not enthusiasts in the category but who enjoy that kind of television and who get an emotional charge and emotional satisfaction from the experience of watching, whether they are enthusiasts or not,” said Ms. Gruen, who was at Food Network when Scripps acquired it in 1997.

According to data from Nielsen Media Research, HGTV is now a top 20 network. In June prime-time total viewership was up 26 percent year to year, with spikes of 12 percent among 18- to 49-year-old adults, 21 percent among adults 18 to 34, 17 percent among adults 25 to 54 and 24 percent among women 25 to 54, a core audience. Total-day viewership in June was up 9 percent year to year, with an increase of 8 percent among core-group women 25 to 54, 35 percent among women 18 to 34 and 20 percent among adults 18 to 34.

On July 13 HGTV set another record, a 1.2 household rating, representing more than 1 million homes-the highest average for a Tuesday night, in spite of the challenges summer presents to programmers.

“This kind of ratings growth can only be powered if you have a very broad appeal,” said Ms. Gruen, who also points to HGTV.com, which recorded 2.7 million unique visitors and 38.5 million page views during May, as a key ingredient to HGTV’s success.

“The way we’re doing it is so satisfying to me,” said Mr. Jablin, a former local news producer who joined HGTV in 1994. “We’re doing it with a lot of popular shows across a lot of nights.”

HGTV’s most popular show is “House Hunters,” which follows prospective buyers on their search for a home. On June 3, when HGTV hit its highest-ever prime-time average, “Hunters” scored a 2.1 household rating, a record for a regular series, demonstrating what Mr. Jablin calls the “amazing story” of Thursday nights, which became the network’s biggest night up against the juggernauts of NBC and CBS during the 2003-04 season.

For the second quarter, the network’s top 10 list was a nice mix of veteran shows (“Curb Appeal,” which is expected to bring back popular former host Rick Spence next year) and new offerings (“Designed to Sell,” in which homeowners planning to sell their house get expert advice on how to buff up the place on a $2,000 budget).

Ms. Gruen notes another way in which HGTV defies conventional wisdom: It has become a hit without ever having had a breakout hit show or personality, a la Comedy Central’s “South Park,” TLC’s “Trading Spaces” or sister network Food Network’s Emeril Lagasse.

“They don’t have big peaks and valleys that you tend to have on a network that does have a hit, where people come in for the hit and then tend to leave the network,” said Ms. Gruen.

There was, for longtime HGTV viewers, some bittersweet news in a recent announcement that “The Carol Duvall Show,” which helped define HGTV in its early years, will complete production on its final 91 episodes this fall. However, the “Duvall” show, with some 1,200 episodes shot over the past 10 years, will continue to be a fixture on HGTV (where mornings are project-oriented) and DIY-Do It Yourself Network.

Broadening the Lineup

Ms. Duvall wanted to host a crafters’ cruise, but Mr. Jablin said that’s “a business we don’t know, so we were reluctant to get into it.” (She plans to do the cruise without HGTV involvement next February aboard Carnival Cruise Lines’ new MS Miracle.) HGTV has, however, talked to Ms. Duvall about books. And he said the woman known as “the queen of crafts” is “enthusiastic” about prospects of becoming involved with Scripps’ Shop at Home Network.

Not every attempt to broaden the lineup has worked. “Ground Rules,” which found HGTV hopping on the neighbors-competing-with-neighbors bandwagon, lacked many of the trademark elements of HGTV programming and had only one run.

But “Divine Design,” a Canadian import featuring designer Candice Olson-who may have more exquisite taste than any HGTV regular and who jokes and mugs with her work crew-clicked quickly with viewers.

A staggering total of 1,100 hours of new programming-HGTV has 40 to 50 series in production at any given time-is in the pipeline for the 2004-05 season. “Designer Finals,” on which top students have to pull off a real-life makeover that passes a number of tests-especially winning the adventuresome homeowner-guinea pig’s approval-sneak peeks at 9:30 p.m. Aug. 5 and debuts at 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14, a night of the week that has given any number of shows a chance to find audiences.

Most of the new shows, including “Crafters Coast to Coast,” which will feature three contemporary crafters per episode, will begin rolling out in the fourth quarter.

Most will be variations on the home-renovation shows that have become such profitable perennials for HGTV, which has refined its daypart strategies (project-oriented on weekday mornings, lifestyle-oriented on weekday afternoons and the male-friendly “Work Zone,” which has shows that feature major construction, on Saturday mornings, followed by the “Green Street” block of gardening shows Saturday afternoons.

Evenings, however, are reserved for storytelling (“Which of three designers’ plans will the homeowners choose on `Designers Challenge?”‘).

All of these changes have helped open up new categories for Mr. Steinlauf’s advertising team. The network has broadened the definition of real estate-related programming to make it appeal to everyone, from building supply giants to mortgage companies and brokers to exterminators. “A lot of budgets have been created especially for the real estate area,” Mr. Steinlauf said. Retail is still the top category, but HGTV’s viewer profile and programming environment has now turned to home to office supply store and pet-related advertising.

The result is such rapid growth that Scripps this month reported that HGTV contributed $56.6 million, up 39 percent year to year, to Scripps Networks’ profits for the second quarter. The company said HGTV revenues grew 28 percent to $101 million.