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Ellen, ‘DWTS’ Bromance, 2 Sexiest Men Alive: How HGTV Proves ‘Niche’ Isn’t a Dirty Word

HGTV ranks 8 among cable networks with 22 million viewers weekly in primetime. TheWrap looks at what’s driving the success of the lifestyle and home improvement channel

When HGTV broke ground in December 1994, few in the industry thought it would amount to more than a quaint idea with niche appeal.

Fast-forward two decades, and the once-tiny lifestyle and gardening channel has morphed into a global cultural phenomenon with shows from Ellen DeGeneres and “Dancing With the Stars” pros Mark Ballas and Derek Hough, who debut Tuesday in “Mark and Derek’s Excellent Flip.”

The buzzy marquee names along with the cable network’s homegrown crop of hot hosts and simple yet highly addictive formats are sending ratings through the roof.

For the week ending April 26, HGTV was the eighth highest-rated cable network in primetime viewership. And earlier this month, HGTV announced its strongest ratings quarter ever, attracting 22 million viewers in primetime each week.

“We’re a top-10 network, we’re No. 1 among women, and we can say that just about every night of the week,” HGTV president Kathleen Finch told TheWrap. “We do that by super-serving the audience with content that they love.”

During upfront presentations earlier this month, the network announced it’s adding 10 new shows to its 2015 slate and new episodes of 20 other titles, accounting for 800 hours of original programming.

While other home improvement behemoths such as ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and TLC’s “Trading Spaces” saw their ratings slowly fizzle over the years (until they were too costly to justify the expense), the opposite can be said of HGTV.

Five of the network’s hit series — “Rehab Addict,” “Fixer Upper,” “House Hunters Renovation,” “Property Brothers” and “Caribbean Life” — are on pace to deliver their highest-rated seasons ever, according to the network.

Meanwhile, 2014 was HGTV’s best year ever, up an impressive 81 percent since the network was first rated in 1998.

HGTV by the Numbers graphic

Now some of Hollywood’s biggest names are getting in on the action.

Ellen DeGeneres scored ratings gold with “Ellen’s Design Challenge.” The reality furniture design competition ranked among the highest-rated series in HGTV history.

“Beverly Hills 90210’s” Jennie Garth renovated her own home as HGTV cameras recorded the process. Basketball legend Lebron James recently joined HGTV’s Nicole Curtis on a full-house renovation for a deserving Ohio family. And starting Tuesday, “Dancing With the Stars” pros Derek Hough and Mark Ballas are hanging up their dancing shoes for a four-week HGTV special series, “Mark & Derek’s Excellent Flip.”

Over the past few years, HGTV has managed to build a succession of real-estate juggernauts, from its long-running “House Hunters” franchise to more recent breakout hits like “Property Brothers” and “Fixer Upper” all with slight variations on the same basic blueprint: buying, renovating and selling homes.

“They’ve mastered this perfect formula and really stuck to the storytelling principles that are tried and true,” said Oliver Luckett, branding expert and CEO of Los Angeles-based media company, theAudience.

While HGTV’s programming can be formulaic almost to a fault, experts say it’s that predictability that has people tuning in week after week.

Case in point: “Love It or List It,” one of the channel’s biggest hits. The show follows such a rigid structure it rarely deviates from its original template: reaction shots, camera angles and even specific language are routinely recycled from episode to episode.

The premise of the show is simple: Designer Hilary Farr remakes rooms deemed too far gone by their owners as she tries to convince them to fall back in love with their homes. Meanwhile, real estate broker David Visentin encourages them to sell after showing them a series of newer, move-in ready properties (the third house is always the one they like). In the end, homeowners have to decide whether to love their home or list it. Even that choice is highly predictable. An unscientific survey by TheWrap showed 10 “love its” to every four “list its.”

“There is something very soothing about the fact that you know exactly what’s going to happen next,” Luckett said. “I must have watched at least 100 episodes of ‘Love It or List It’ and I have five of them on my DVR right now.”

That formulaic approach has made HGTV the go-to place for viewers looking to unwind at the end of a stressful day. When Hillary Clinton stepped down as Secretary of State, she famously told The New York Times she hoped to spend more time watching “Love It or List It” because she found it “very calming.”

“People have certain formats that they like,” said Jonathan Scott, star of the network’s hit show “Property Brothers.” “But we try to throw a wrench into the show whenever we can, to mix up the format a little bit.”

Jonathan and his identical twin, Drew, have become such a ratings magnet that they now headline four different HGTV shows. At 6’4”, the easy-on-the-eyes Canadian siblings have become stars in their own right, making People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive” list twice.

The fact that most of HGTV’s stars are exceptionally good-looking also comes by design. About 72 percent of HGTV’s prime-time audience is female. While there are no numbers on gay viewership, the network says many of audience members are LGBT.

“If you look at the lineup of our talent, they are just gorgeous human beings,” Finch said. “Never in a million years would we put on talent just because they’re beautiful. But if they also happen to be beautiful, that’s a home run.”

HGTV is the biggest money-making source for Scripps Networks Interactive (which also includes Food Network, DIY, Cooking Channel and Travel Channel), generating more than $938 million in revenue in 2014, up 7 percent from the year before. The channel provides about a third of the company’s $2.7 billion revenue.

“Because about 40 percent of the advertisers on our network are endemic advertisers — meaning the home improvement stores, the furniture stores, the realtors — our viewers watch our advertisements as if it’s content,” Finch said.

While HGTV’s fare would seem to appeal to a niche market, its viewership goes beyond Home Depot junkies.

“You’d be amazed at how often we hear people say, ‘I don’t renovate, I’m never going to renovate, but I just watch your programs because I enjoy it,’ and that’s really one of the secrets to our success,” Finch said. “There’s utility for people who want utility, but it’s all packaged in a fun, entertaining program. You don’t really need to watch it because you want to renovate your basement.”

HGTV’s meteoric rise hasn’t come without controversy. The network was the target of criticism after the global economic crisis of 2008. A year into the Great Recession, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece called HGTV “the real villain of the economic meltdown,” claiming the network encouraged people to buy homes they couldn’t afford.

The article, titled “Blame Television for the Bubble,” argued: “Suddenly no one but the most slovenly and unambitious were satisfied with their houses. It didn’t matter if you lived in an apartment or a gated community, one episode of ‘House Hunters’ or ‘What’s My House Worth?’ and you were convinced you needed more.”

Then, in 2014, the network found itself embroiled in a PR nightmare after the stars of one of its upcoming shows came out against gays and Muslims.

Christian twins David and Jason Benham, who had already inked a deal with HGTV to launch a show called “Flip It Forward,” made headlines after the site Right Wing Watch posted a recording of David Benham talking about “homosexuality and its agenda that is attacking the nation.” HGTV quickly fired the two.

But the HGTV empire’s still standing, perhaps stronger than ever.

HGTV magazine now boasts a circulation of more than 1 million per issue. HGTV HOME, the network’s home product line, is expected to exceed $300 million in retail sales this year. And on Dec. 4, HGTV was made available outside of the U.S. for the first time with its launch in Singapore and the Philippines. An expansion to other parts of Asia is planned for later this year.

“It’s pretty amazing, especially as we’re expanding throughout the world as quickly as we can,” Finch said. “The desire is there, it’s just us getting the infrastructure up and pushing our content out. We are a really powerful media company.”