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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Will People Still Watch HGTV If It Becomes More Like Bravo?

As HGTV focuses more and more on the personalities behind the reno, will audiences keep tuning in?
Screenshot: HGTV
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Leanne Ford, cohost of Home Again with the Fords, is in crisis, poised on the brink of a rare meltdown. Normally unflappable, she finds herself stymied by a green stove—specifically, how it looks against the walls she has opted to stain with coffee. Something is off. The ceilings, she realizes, her panic rising. In order to vault the ceilings for the house she’s designing for her sister-in-law, Leanne and her brother Steve have exposed the joists, revealing rich, dark wood that goes against her typically spare and bohemian design aesthetic. For Leanne, it’s too much. The cure is white paint, like a deep breath, and wrapping the stove in clay-colored vinyl. But this is no mere aesthetic matter: The small cottage in question is particularly special, providing a home base for her sister-in-law to visit with family, including Leanne’s daughter Ever, and Leanne wants to make sure it meets her exacting standards. The result is beautiful: a home for her family to enjoy for years to come.

The latest addition to the HGTV lineup Home Again with the Fords is itself a renovation. The Ford siblings first appeared on Restored by the Fords, which ran on the channel in 2019. I loved the show in part because it stood out from the typical HGTV offerings, which tend toward pre-packaged, tightly edited, family-first sentimentality. Focused more on renovation than interpersonal stories about family, it had a dash of weirdness too esoteric for the mass-market mega-success of the Gaineses. Leanne’s aesthetic is more contemporary than the other interiors produced on the channel. White is her favorite color, and all of her interiors look cool and anesthetic, like an art gallery or the display floor of a lovely CB2. But she’s not afraid to do something like, say, paint a swimming pool black. The Fords are also siblings, and so there are no Mom and Dad vibes in their presentation.

But the show lasted just two seasons, and now the Fords are back with some new HGTV repackaging, in a glossy, polished hour of television that manages to retain some of the original show’s charm while hewing to the standards set by its platform. The evidence of HGTV’s new direction is clear, from a 2020 press release announcing a new slate of programming: “Many of HGTV’s newly greenlit series will fit well in its ‘renovation, design and real estate’ wheelhouse, but some will lean into the emotional highs and lows that the participating stars and families face,” it reads. The Ford siblings’ pivot is just the beginning of what the network wants to do with its existing properties and offers a bellwether of what the future might hold for any aspiring home renovation stars looking to make it big. The focus is, as always, on the homes their stars are renovating, but increasingly, it is about the characters behind the renovations, too.

By now, the HGTV formula is clear: telegenic hosts renovating houses into something more than mere domicilesimportant and crucial vessels for memories to flourish and for roots to take hold. What was missing from Restored by the Fords, by this logic, was family, which has been pumped aggressively into this new project. Home Again With the Fords is similar to all other HGTV shows, in that at the end of a tight hour of television, there’s a grand reveal of a recently renovated home and, hopefully, tears. The twist that differentiates this show is the theme of homecoming: Leanne and her husband Erik moved back to her hometown of Pittsburgh to raise her daughter, Ever, and to be closer to family. Her brother Steve, an affable contractor with an enduring fondness for backwards baseball hats, is back to reprise his role as Leanne’s necessary foil. Together, the Fords help people who have chosen to move back to Pittsburgh find their forever home, in a direct response to the trend of people doing just that during the course of the pandemic.

The change in direction is reflected in the show’s new intro. “I’ve moved all over the country, but Pittsburgh will always have my heart,” Leanne says in a voiceover that scores a shot of Steve’s big truck cruising down a country road, her beaming face in the rearview, intercut with scenic views of Pittsburgh’s three majestic rivers bathed in golden, magic-hour light. The theme song is now something Lumineers-adjacent, a plunky, guitar-forward number with lyrics so banal that it seems as if they were generated by AI: “No matter what we do, no matter where we go, we always come back home.”

Restored by the Fords focused primarily on the homes the Ford siblings were restoring, but Home Again trains its eye on the family, treating the siblings like characters in a television show as well as home renovation professionals tasked with doing one simple job.

When Fixer Upper announced its departure from the network in 2018, Restored by the Fords was one of HGTV’s marquee offerings that could’ve readily taken its place, but the fact that the Fords were siblings meant that they did not quite fit the mold. (For an HGTV show to be a true home run, there must be a husband.) Instead, Home Town has ascended the HGTV throne, churning out episodes that wax lyrically about the notion of putting down roots. Home Again With the Fords takes the premise a step even further. In every episode, the homeowner in question is literally returning to their hometown, Pittsburgh, which reinforces the network’s mission statement more explicitly: establishing roots only works and has value if you do it in the place that made you—your home town.

It’s partly that HGTV is trying to replicate the runaway success of the Gaineses, yes. But it’s also part of a broader strategy at the channel. Increasingly, HGTV is putting the personalities first. “We are looking for more storytelling—deeper stories, richer stories—leaning more into emotions around relationships,” HGTV president Jane Latman told Variety in October 2020, explaining they were “stretching” the brand. “We recognize the brand is about home, but that doesn’t mean it’s just about home renovation. It’s about looking at renovation through a family dynamic.”

It’s not just the Fords, either. Good Bones stars the mother-daughter duo Karen Laine and Mina Starsiak, who renovate homes in the Indianapolis area. But the show has slightly changed its tack: Mina and her mother are still flipping houses, but Mina’s fertility journey and her quest to conceive on the fifth season of her show gets just as much airtime in an episode as a particularly troublesome insulation issue might.

But even as the older shows and casts adapt to fit the new model, newer offerings on the network are more explicitly experimenting with classic reality TV drama—with less focus on the narrative of the happy family. Alison Victoria, the designer and co-host of Windy City Rehab, has been embroiled in a nasty legal battle with her former co-host, contractor Donovan Eckhardt, over issues of fraud, for the two seasons the show has been on the air. The real-life drama concerning the two stars is the sort that would’ve normally stayed behind the scenes, but letting it play out on television, as part of the story, was a deliberate choice. “We covered that in a way that we would not have a few years ago, and the ratings skyrocketed,” Latman told Variety. 

The Windy City Rehab fracas is playing out on screen as well as in the pages of People and other tabloids, where it sits alongside gossip items about celebrities and other reality show stars. People’s “Home” vertical runs stories about the comings and goings of HGTV stars like Joanna Gaines, Christina Staack, and Erin Napier, situating them as media personalities in their own right.
In part, HGTV is hoping that if they position the handy men and women of HGTV as reality stars in the same mold as Bravo’s Real Housewives—though without the same type of dramaa bigger audience will tune in.

By now, the allure of reality TV is less about the presumed “reality” that the shows are presenting and more about the storylines. Cliffhangers and diva antics are often key to making a reality show appointment television. But that is a marked departure from the content that HGTV built its legacy on, and so there’s a tension inherent in ramping up their programming’s reality TV element. The majority of the shows on the network are deeply invested in a traditional notion of family, which differs greatly from Bravo’s understanding of the same term. Teresa Giudice flipping a table at a banquet hall in New Jersey and calling Danielle Staub a “prostitution whore” would not fly on an episode of Rehab Addict Rescue with Nicole Curtis.

Watching House Hunters, the most banal offering in HGTV’s arsenal, is a spectator sport, similar enough in spirit to watching a Housewife do a half-hearted shimmy atop a table at a resort in Maui after a few piña coladas. It’s very easy to spend an entire day watching a Flip or Flop marathon, because HGTV is excellent background television: soothing procedurals that don’t require much attention, except for the very end, when the final product is revealed. But that kind of passive attention is increasingly easy to capture now, especially as streaming platforms like Discovery+ and Netflix crowd the landscape with the same kind of content. As the dominant player in the space, it is necessary to iterate, but the results don’t always make for good TV. And there’s no guarantee that the HGTV audience will want their home renovation shows served with a hearty side of interpersonal drama.

But both HGTV and Bravo’s reality TV offerings have a common goal: to present upwardly mobile living as aspirational and, in some cases, attainable, too. The Real Housewives are largely famous because they are wealthy, and their lifestyles are aspirational, but HGTV operates by simplifying the home ownership mystery into easy-to-digest narrative television. It’s easy to envision the bridge between these two approaches; perhaps it could look a little like Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing, a show that combines the aspirational gawping of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with narrative storylines featuring its cast as characters. Move that entire operation to a Southern town with cheap real estate and beautiful scenery, and add some colorful characters—an interior designer and her contractor sister, mysteriously returned home to settle up some unfinished, family-friendly business—and see what shakes out. The blueprint for appointment TV is right there. It’s just a matter of what HGTV will be able to do with it, and if anyone will care to watch.