Imagine that a little more than a quarter century ago, you were sitting in a big media company’s boardroom and you suggested a new television network that featured nothing but people spackling, rearranging furniture and otherwise fixing up their homes. You might have wanted to make sure your resumé was up to date. Yet 25 years later, that very network—HGTV (originally styled as the Home, Lawn and Garden Channel; lawn didn’t stick)—is now the third-most-watched cable station in the country. It’s also a leader in (and a cause) of a period of unprecedented attention on how we Americans live.
After the initial idea for the network was pitched in 1992, HGTV took to the air with its first programming in December 1994—in 44 markets and available to 6.5 million households—making 2019 its 25th anniversary. It was the brainchild of Kenneth Lowe, a radio executive at the Cincinnati-based media conglomerate E.W. Scripps Company, better known for its newspapers and print publications than its electronic efforts. From those humble beginnings, HGTV now reaches close to 100 million homes, or more than eight of 10 households in the country. Its lineup of individual stations has exploded to include Food Network, Travel Channel, Cooking Channel, DIY Network and international spinoffs of its American programming in some 70 other countries. In a benchmark of HGTV’s monumental success, last year Discovery Inc. paid close to $12 billion to buy the network.
But the numbers tell only part of the story of the profound impact HGTV has had on the modern home furnishings industry. Along with the internet, social media and e-commerce, HGTV can be counted as a major driver of the prominence our homes and their furnishings have achieved since 1994. Consider just these most obvious results of 25 years of HGTV:
- The entire housing boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s (a period that abruptly ended with the housing crash and the Great Recession in 2008) can be at least partially attributed to HGTV’s celebration of the home. While Americans have always aspired to home ownership, watching real people achieve their dream homes on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week, made the goal a more tangible preoccupation. Home, which had always taken a backseat to the fashion apparel business, became just as prominent, and in some ways an even more prevalent element of the American conspicuous consumption process.
- In much the same way, HGTV’s Food Network is the undisputed driving force behind the celebrity chef phenomenon and the resulting influx of wannabes. Certainly the cooking, eating and kitchen design elements that are now standard practice among the masses would not have existed without the enormous attention the network brought to the subject. Could there really be a market for everything from $50 kitchen utensils to $25,000 cooking ranges without the Food Network?
- The rise of retailers selling the aforementioned kitchen and home products—namely, the lifestyle home furnishings store—would not have occurred without the constant aspirational messaging of the network’s shows, which was later replicated in HGTV magazine and its many online properties. Stores selling affordable home furnishings, housewares, decor and remodeling products—the likes of West Elm, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, RH, Bed Bath & Beyond, IKEA, Home Depot, Lowes, and others—have exploded to meet the demand of the home-obsessed consumer.
- HGTV’s stations gave rise to a whole new generation of stars, many of whom went on to become best-selling brands in their own right. Emeril Lagasse’s “Bam!”-inspired products were one of the memorable earlier launches in the mid-’90s, but the list is seemingly endless, spanning housewares, tabletop, furniture, bed, bath, rugs, lighting and just about anything needed to furnish a modern home. With the exception of Martha Stewart and some of Oprah’s spinoffs, nearly every personality or property-based brand of the past two decades can likely trace its origins back to an HGTV show.
- What HGTV taketh, somebody else had to lose—and in this case, it was traditional print shelter magazines. A victim of the overall decline of the print media business, one has to put shelter titles’ troubles in the context of online and social media outlets as major influencers for consumers. But there is no question that these days, those looking for information, inspiration and innovations in home furnishings, cooking and remodeling tend to turn on their TVs before turning to the pages of a magazine.
HGTV’s greatest national contribution may be an entirely unintended one. In 2016, when the network became one of the most watched on cable (trailing only Fox News and ESPN), there was much analysis as to why. In fact, the timing is no coincidence: With the nation as divided today as perhaps at any time in history, with unprecedented levels of vitriol and partisanship coming from the media, many surmise that HGTV—politically, socially, geographically, racially and philosophically neutral—is the perfect channel for public and private spaces where anything more biased creates the potential for controversy, discord and friction.
Twenty-five years after its founding, HGTV has become the living embodiment of one of the simplest sentiments in the English language: Home sweet home.