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HGTV Likes Its Crowded House

Scripps decorating network boasted record ratings in October 11/09/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern

The glut of home redecorating shows on cable is driving some viewers right back home—to Home & Garden Television, that is. The Scripps Networks channel was flush with record ratings in October, and seven of its series are attracting more than 1 million viewers per episode.

Of course, none of HGTV's shows reaches the level of popularity of TLC's Trading Spaces. But HGTV's success "isn't based on one or two huge hits. It is based on strength night after night," said network President Burton Jablin.

HGTV's shows embrace a range of lifestyle trends, from Date With Design, a dating show where a young woman picks a guy and redecorates his pad, to home-exterior makeover show Curb Appeal and some light competition programs like Designers Challenge. The network's shows aim for equal parts information and entertainment.

In October, HGTV nabbed a 0.9 Nielsen household rating, up 50% from a year ago. It has never been in that neighborhood before. For the month, it averaged 850,000 viewers in prime, putting HGTV in company with bigger cable names like A&E and FX. Not surprisingly, HGTV is strongest with women 18-49 and 25-54 years old.

The network steadfastly refuses product placements, though there could hardly be a better place to hawk tools, paints and cleaners. No dice, said network executives. HGTV contends that in-show advertisements would undermine its authority: If an HGTV show features Benjamin Moore paint, is that because it's the right design decision or because the paint company paid for the plug?

Another argument against placements is that older products can make shows look dated, and HGTV and its Scripps sister Food Network work their libraries hard.

Rival Discovery Networks, under ad sales chief Joe Abruzzese, has gotten more aggressive with deals combining traditional ads and product placement but tries to limit them and work them naturally into shows, noted Discovery Networks President Billy Campbell. For example, the Swiffer broom from Procter & Gamble is featured on Trading Spaces, but only in some episodes and only when it makes sense for the designers to use one.

HGTV is missing out on incremental ad revenue. Campbell Mithun media buyer John Rash said advertisers value a loyal audience like HGTV's but clients increasingly want product placement. "They realize how challenging it is to break through the commercial and cultural clutter."

The network is testing other avenues. Instead of product placement, advertisers can now sponsor informational and how-to sections on HGTV.com, which means they get a plug during on-air promos for the Web site. HGTV plans to do more deals like this next year.

Meanwhile, the channel continues to churn out original shows, with 1,100 hours of programming planned for next year. Unlike most cable redecorating and reality shows, most HGTV programs are half-hours. That helps keeps production costs lower and allows for more programs (HGTV has currently has 55 series on the air).

In first quarter 2004, the net will experiment with its first hour-long series Debbie Travis' Face Lift, in which the well-know designer will redecorate homes.
Travis previously hosted a decorating show for Oxygen, and it's clear HGTV thinks she will have fan appeal. "We need to make sure there is enough meat to justify an hour," said Senior Vice President of Programming Michael Dingley.

Last spring, former TLC development executive Mary Ellen Iwata joined HGTV as vice president of development, to keep HGTV humming.

Now HGTV has eight to 10 new series slated for next year. Among them: Design To Sell, where couples get $2,000 to spruce up their home before they put it up for sale, and What Have I Done?!, helping homeowners fix botched home-improvement jobs.

HGTV also rejuvenates older series. A few years ago, it dumped Curb Appeal
from prime time. New programmers made some tweaks, and now Curb Appeal is back in prime, one of HGTV's highest-rated shows. Design for the Sexes and New Spaces followed a similar path.

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