In this age of “peak TV,” when hundreds of intricate and high-quality shows must fight for survival, the success of a milquetoast show like “House Hunters” barely makes sense: The proudly formulaic HGTV series follows random homebuyers as they pat down laminate countertops and calmly discuss closet space.
But to the astonishment of rival networks, “House Hunters” remains one of the most unlikely and unstoppable juggernauts on TV. The show last year aired a staggering 447 new episodes — far more than the typical 12-to-22-episode cable season — and helped HGTV become one of the most-watched cable networks in America.
“House Hunters” serves as a fascinating counter-example to some of the TV business’ biggest anxieties, including the growing costs and competition of scripted dramas and the rise of “cord-cutters” moving their viewing online. “House Hunters” producers spend next to nothing on stars or storylines, do little to groom an Internet audience — and still consistently attract 25 million viewers every month.
“It’s happy television. It’s so safe. It’s like an old sweater,” said Terri Murray, the executive producer of “House Hunters” and its vast array of specials and spin-offs. “You can walk away from it because the storyline is so simple, the structure is so repetitive, that you can come back and already knows what’s missing.”
At 17 years old — more than a lifetime in cable years — “House Hunters” has defied TV gravity, and network executives liken its cost, simplicity and timelessness to their version of “Wheel of Fortune” or the nightly news. The franchise, which aired 26 episodes in 1999, has since exploded, airing an average of 406 episodes a year since the start of 2012.
The show’s simple structure — shoppers tour three potential homes, then decide on their favorite — is brazenly paint-by-number: Murray called it “so formatted it’s kind of a no-brainer” to make. The blog PopSugar in November compiled a list of 24 things that happen every episode, from “A Buyer Says ‘Wow!’ in an Entryway” to “Retro Details Are Identified and Scorned.”
But the show’s special blend of “property voyeurism,” as network executives call it, has allowed for the creation of about 20 specials and spin-offs, including “Tiny House Hunters” “House Hunters Off the Grid” and “Houseboat Hunters.” Tweaks to the formula have been minimal and rare: “House Hunters Pop’d,” which first aired in 2014, is the same show but with trivia, popping onscreen.
So what keeps viewers so thoroughly addicted? It has game elements; it’s family-friendly; and it features random strangers virtually guaranteed to charm, surprise or annoy. Allison Page, the general manager of HGTV at Scripps Networks Interactive, the media giant that also owns the Food Network, calls it TV “comfort food”: An easy way to enjoy the otherwise baffling and convoluted business of buying a home.
“It boils down what is a stressful and dramatic experience in real life,” Page said, “to a satisfying, entertaining half-hour of television with a guaranteed resolution, every night.”
For some viewers, there may also be a certain dark pleasure to watching the homebuyers bumble and thrash. “We know that the house is too small or too far from the city center or in a state of disrepair, and yet these fools have decided to make it their home,” a faithful viewer, Scott Burau, told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “It just doesn’t get old.”
“House Hunters'” tidy storytelling may help explain why it thrived as America’s broader housing economy collapsed. Viewership was strong during the housing bubble of the mid-2000s, when easy credit allowed pretty much everyone to buy a home. But the show really took off as mass foreclosures and the rise of renting dropped American homeownership to a 50-year low. The annual count of new “House Hunters” episodes tripled between the peak of the bubble, in 2005, and the Great Recession’s official end, in 2009.
That booming growth has forced producers to build an unprecedented show-making machine. There are never fewer than 15 camera crews out shooting a new episode at any given time across the United States. Another 25 teams of directors, camera chiefs, sound technicians and local fixers span the world for the show’s globe-trotting spin-off, “House Hunters International.”
The average episode is filmed in three days, and costs a small fraction of the $2 to $4 million spent on the typical hour-long TV drama. The shows are edited to have few gaps between the end of one show and the start of the next, and episodes often run back-to-back in long stacks or marathons, designed to keep viewers glued to the TV for hours at a time.
When the show first started in 1999, producers pushed to convince random couples to let them have their homebuying process videotaped for mass consumption. Now, so many house hunters offer up their stories that producers can be selective. To keep the cameras rolling, producers have expanded from couples to practically everyone looking for a home, including singles, sisters and expanded families.
The show’s strong ratings, ample airtime and safe predictability have helped it become a darling of advertisers. And because camera crews are practically always filming a new episode, producers can begin working on product placement immediately upon closing a deal with, say, GMC, whose Denali has repeatedly starred in episodes while shepherding homebuyers from house to house.
To boost advertising potential, producers have worked with their “integrated partners” to, for instance, add trivia questions before commercial breaks: One deal with air-conditioning giant Carrier quizzed viewers on how much home energy goes to heating and cooling.
But many of the deals are far more subtle, and use the house hunters themselves as promotional tools: “I never really know what to do with silverware,” one homebuyer said in a recent episode while grabbing at handfuls of plastic forks, part of an HGTV ad deal with disposable tableware maker Chinet.
The subtle genius of HGTV’s empire is its mastery of “endemic advertising”: Building an alluring habitat for an advertiser’s most-sought market, and letting that audience come to them. In other words, “House Hunters” succeeds not just in winning TV-watching homeowners — but also winning homeowner-targeting advertisers, like Home Depot, who know they’re more likely to reach who they need.
“It’s almost like the same logic as a search engine: If you’re sitting there for an hour watching someone redo houses, you’re a logical buyer for plywood, hammers or nails,” said Laura Martin, a senior media analyst at investment researcher Needham & Co. “The minute you buy a house, you become a superfan for exactly this kind of programming.”
The overt product-placement deals do little to squash the criticism that some “House Hunters” episodes are unrealistic, heavily scripted — or staged. Former subjects have said they were made to tour loser homes with the cameras after they had already decided on their new home.
HGTV has waved off the allegations by saying its house hunters revisit previously toured homes so producers can “capture their authentic reactions” and “maximize production time.” The network has since struck back with a parody segment, in which writers work through the next elaborate script: “Do you ‘ooh’ at a foyer? I feel like that’s more of a kitchen sound.”
That micro-scandal had little impact on its mainly middle-America market, its national ratings, or even its place in the cultural zeitgeist: In August, GQ called “House Hunters” “the best dumb show on television,” saying its blissful lack of nuance made it an escapist fantasy, and “a black hole for your attention span.”
Producers say they have few plans to reposition “House Hunters” for the cord-cutting, web-streaming future of TV: Nearly all of its views come the old-fashioned way, through a household TV. But HGTV executives say they’re not too worried about getting left behind: The shows’ schedules are already planned through the start of 2017.
“We keep wondering: When are people going to turn away from it?” said Murray, the show’s executive producer. “And it never happens, and we sometimes wonder why that is.”