Sara Alessi looks at how home-renovation and design series are being given makeovers of their own to keep the genre fresh and in demand.
A home can be a symbol of success. It can also represent the owner’s personality. Home is, after all, where the heart is. So it’s not surprising that even as some folks are looking to upgrade or downsize by purchasing new homes to fit their changing lifestyles, others are on a mission to customize the walls already around them, whether the goal is to make their houses fancier, more practical, or simply more personal. Where better to turn than the television—usually prominently displayed at home—for inspiration (and tips on how to get it all done)?
“There is great interest in and demand for home-renovation series, as illustrated by record-breaking ratings at HGTV,” says Allison Page, the general manager of U.S. programming and development at Scripps Networks Interactive.
“Smart, entertaining, creative home shows resist changing viewing patterns,” says Gena McCarthy, the executive VP of programming and development for FYI at A+E Networks. “It’s a classic genre that needs a clever update every few years to stay relevant, but it is almost a comfort food for many people.”
McCarthy adds, “FYI reinvented this classic genre and has inspired many imitators by anchoring our development process in social trends.”
While those trends may vary across the globe, there are dedicated fans everywhere who want to see homes transformed before their eyes while simultaneously picking up tips to spruce up their own space. That’s why Maartje Horchner, the executive VP of content at all3media international, believes “home-renovation series have consistent appeal internationally.”
Holly Hodges, the head of sales operations and a VP of sales at Twofour Rights, agrees, noting, “Home renovation remains a staple genre and an interesting reflection of social movement and the economic state. We are currently in an era of warm, feel-good television that’s probably rooted in the economic conditions we are living in. People are not moving as much today, so the home-renovation format points of full-scale builds and excess have been replaced with how to make money on homes, something that’s part of our format The Home Game.”
Each episode introduces teams of homeowners who are at the beginning of a major renovation and fast-forwards through the makeover process to reveal the transformations and show who added the most value to their property.
Matthew Ashcroft, the CEO of Parade Media, notes that the British trend is indeed “reflected on our screens with a high demand for makeover programming versus knock down and build. House prices are soaring, and more people are staying in their homes, which means more DIY and fewer ground-up builds,” as seen in shows like Ready Set Reno and The Home Team.
“What works in one market is different than the next, and that distinction gives viewers insight into various real estate and design trends across the country,” explains Scripps’ Page. “A 4,000-square-foot house might be $150,000 in one town, and that’s a great gee-whiz element, particularly to those viewers in pricier markets. A mid-century design might be what can sell a specific house in a different town, and that’s a compelling insight on another show. It’s the variety within the narrow lane of home-related programming that is our special sauce.”
Jon Kramer, the CEO of Rive Gauche Television, has found that “like everything else in the unscripted space, home-reno and design is a crowded arena. The market is looking for new ideas, and you’ve got to at least live up to the standards. It’s hard to enter unless you have a unique element to offer.”
That can be a challenge, as “producers need to deliver stories with a fresh approach to what have become common renovation tasks,” A+E’s McCarthy explains. “Yet, we must maintain a familiar feel for those tasks so that we don’t lose the viewer in the first minute of the program.”
Tiny House Nation, for example, offers a unique perspective by introducing viewers to people across the U.S. who are making their dream home in spaces no larger than 500 square feet.
Alongside the “tiny house” craze in the U.S., there is also a “greater amount of courage in renovating a home,” says Rive Gauche’s Kramer. “A lot of people today buy a house and gut the entire inside, leaving only the walls.” This adds an element of anticipation as viewers at home await the ta-da moment when the result is unveiled.
Indeed, the key to maintaining audience engagement is “a big reveal at the conclusion of each episode or multiple mini-reveals across the narrative arc,” Parade’s Ashcroft says.
“Home-renovation formats are about transformation, and viewers look for that payoff,” adds Hodges of Twofour.
And when a project is this big and personal, it should be entrusted to someone who knows what he or she is doing when wielding a hammer—or a sledgehammer.
A+E’s McCarthy is mindful that “viewers who tackle home renovations are usually making a big investment. Therefore, they must trust the information and methods a host delivers. When a host’s personality and wit make a project look more enjoyable, viewers are more likely to trust their own DIY capabilities and complete a project successfully. And success at home creates a loyal viewer.”
Kate Llewellyn-Jones, the managing director of TCB Media Rights, is also of the opinion that “having practical, takeaway advice is helpful, and it boosts the program into the spotlight.”
For Rive Gauche’s Kramer, hosts “have to be able to communicate with the audience and take you on a journey of renovation, and they should have more knowledge than the viewer does. A good presenter will make you feel comfortable and attempt to be on the same page as you.”
Kramer has found that the use of computer technology to demonstrate what the renovations will look like to the homeowners and the audience is one innovation that has added to the viewing experience.
Rive Gauche sells Fix It & Finish It, hosted by Antonio Sabato Jr. Kramer points to Sabato as a successful presenter because “he is personable, a good communicator and he has knowledge of how to renovate a house. Viewers like him and trust him.”
“Hosts have to be an authority in their trade, and they must be engaging and professional, with a strong point of view that people want to listen to and learn from or be inspired by,” agrees Parade’s Ashcroft.
Hodges of Twofour adds, “Knowledge of the subject matter can give a presenter credibility, while enthusiasm and passion for interiors and renovation can help a host shine.”
When it comes to qualities that make a successful host, “Likeability, relatability and a passion for what they’re doing have to be first; experience and knowledge are second,” according to Diane Rankin, the senior VP of international sales and acquisitions at Distribution360 (D360).
D360’s home-reno library thrives on the so-called “Bryan brand,” comprised of a range of series hosted by and starring Bryan Baeumler. These programs “cut across a mix of home-reno/lifestyle shows,” Rankin says. “Many buyers refer to his shows as Bryan as opposed to by the actual name of the program.” This is a testament to the power of a host, as viewers develop an attachment to the talent and feel a connection that keeps them coming back.
“Channels and viewers buy into key talent, and the personalities become encompassed into the brand,” says Twofour’s Hodges. “The genre has become more talent-led.”
In fact, “Expert hosts with big personalities tend to attract new viewers, while also securing a repeat audience, as home-reno audiences tend to be loyal,” says Andrea Stokes, the managing director of international sales and acquisitions at Canamedia.
Series featuring multiple hosts are popular as well, and the chemistry between them is critical to the show’s success.
“When you see hosts with an upper hand, they’re often husbands and wives, brothers or mothers and daughters,” says D360’s Rankin. “Home design is very personal. It’s family-oriented and requires a lot of sharing and compromise. It makes sense that family members doing [home renovations] together [on TV] works. You’ve got family members coming into your home via the screen talking about designing and renovating someone’s house together; it just feels comforting and relatable.”
D360’s series House of Bryan, in particular, capitalizes on the family aspect of home renovation as it features Baeumler as he rebuilds his own home—under the watchful eye of wife Sarah and their children.
This trend is also evident in the range of shows on Scripps’ HGTV. From husband-and-wife team Chip and Joanna Gaines on Fixer Upper to siblings Jonathan and Drew Scott on Property Brothers, the lineup is filled with family-led shows.
When it comes to capturing viewers, a little friendly competition between presenters doesn’t hurt, either. TCB recently added Slice of Paradise to its catalog. Llewellyn-Jones says the show “embodies so much of what the market is looking for at the moment, which is often two hosts who have chemistry. There is a competition element to Slice of Paradise, which is a nice hook for the market.”
The series features male and female hosts who are pitted against each other as they compete to see which property the potential home buyers will choose. Llewellyn-Jones believes that the competition element adds something extra to the show, with the hosts’ bantering rapport and the build-up of anticipation to see which property the home buyers will choose, or what a renovation will look like in the end.
And according to Stokes of Canamedia, “You can renovate anything these days, from your cabin to your deck to your shed to your doghouse. Unique, memorable builds with tension and optimism and budgeting versus overspending always make for interesting TV.”
Indeed, the genre has become broader over the years, not only in terms of what can be spruced up, but also with regard to the focus, which is less on money and more on other elements related to the home-renovation and design experience.
“Viewers want a mix of real estate, renovation and design,” says Scripps’ Page. “That blend offers up something for everyone. Ten years ago, a pure design show would work, but today, to bring in the biggest and most passionate audience, we have to offer more.”
“In the execution, I’m seeing less of the [home-reno costs] being discussed because it’s not always relevant, and it could turn a lot of [broadcasters] off since they might have to replace those elements themselves locally,” says D360’s Rankin. “Ideally, buyers would like a turnkey series that can quite quickly be put on the air.”
“People are using many different ways to talk about property,” TCB’s Llewellyn-Jones agrees. “It’s not just transactional, but emotional, so there are many ways of telling that story.”
Twofour’s Hodges concurs. “A home is such a personal and unique space. By telling the story of a renovation, you’re instantly bringing in human interest stories, and the home is such a universal theme, it can work well for local audiences around the globe.”
“The unique selling point of these shows is the production authenticity and genuine emotional connection they make to participants,” says all3media’s Horchner. When viewers are emotionally engaged, they become “directly invested in what they are watching, whether it is through the tension of seeing whether the renovation will be pulled off or identifying with the story of the homeowner on-screen. An example is The Great Interior Design Challenge, which executes the balance between emotional narrative and personable host. This show has been extremely successful worldwide, with recent deals even being brokered in Asia.”
Horchner finds that the biggest change has been a push towards the more aspirational series, referencing Grand Designs and Ugly House to Lovely House with George Clarke as examples. “Viewers are able to imagine a more high-end, aspiring version of their own homes. This sort of show takes a major investment, which ends up putting them in a league of their own. It is this kind of programming that earns the winning slot on first-tier channels.”
Twofour’s Hodges also sees ways for home-reno shows to make their way into more coveted time slots. “Combining renovation format points with reality and returning characters elevates a show into a more prime-time position in a broadcaster’s schedule. Both free-to-air broadcasters and pay channels want this content. Many new channels have launched over the years that are [geared to] home and lifestyle programming, opening up the market further.”