The last episode of the HGTV juggernaut Fixer Upper aired April 3. It followed the usual formula: The Gainses (pragmatic Joanna and goofy, lovable Chip) and their clients (in this case, a Christian rock musician and his wife) pick a house (this part is scripted; the house is already purchased at the time of filming); the Gainses come up with their shiplap-laden rustic modern designs; work begins; something goes wrong (drama!); the thing that goes wrong is fixed; and finally, the house is finished and everybody is happy.
No formal goodbyes were made on air, the sacred formula thus remaining unbroken for five full seasons. Why? Because it works, and HGTV knows it. As the New York Times recently pointed out, 19 of HGTV’s new shows follow the Fixer Upper recipe: renovation dramas hosted by endearing pairs from “real America.”
These shows have been successful for many reasons: They focus on cities, they offer stories of transformation, and they create a narrative of historicity and authenticity that is comforting to viewers in a politically charged America. HGTV has been thriving off of stories of sledgehammer-driven makeovers for quite a while, but these narratives are becoming increasingly worn and complicated amid heated debates about the role of property flipping in urban displacement. And the idea that renovation is necessary for everyone does American homeowners a disservice. So, as a thought experiment, I’m asking this question: What should the next HGTV show look like?
Prior to the reality TV boom of the 2000s, HGTV, established in 1994, was a very different network. In fact, most of the content from its first six years had more in common with PBS than with the HGTV currently on the air. A Wayback Machine capture from 1999 shows a much more diverse slate of programming, including two Antiques Roadshow spinoffs (The Appraisal Fair and Appraise It!), several cooking shows, craft shows like Sew Perfect, shows about gardening (Way to Grow, Grow It!), and the early, and beloved by this author, HGTV decorating shows centered around upcycling and budget-minded redecorating: Decorating with Style, Decorating Cents, and Room by Room. These early shows were more about redecorating an existing space than doing major renovation interventions.
The smashing success of the show House Hunters, which debuted later in 1999, ushered in the network’s reality era. While some programs retained their educational quality—in Holmes on Homes, fatherly contractor Mike Holmes exposes shoddy workmanship in the building industry—HGTV began to largely follow the model of new reality TV shows like American Idol and Big Brother with competition-style shows like Design Star. While the home-flipping narrative popular now has always been a part of the network (the first example, Before and After, debuted in 1997), in the early years these programs used to be more mild-mannered and educationally oriented, such as the show Restore America, which was specifically created to be used in classrooms.
Here’s my problem with today’s “reality”-driven HGTV: It’s not actually realistic.
The network’s standard house-buying narrative involves a mythical couple with coveted mystery jobs who can sit down and buy a house like it’s no big deal. Nobody I know can afford to buy a house right now or in the near future. (Hi, student loans!) There is evidence to corroborate this: Young people aren’t buying houses, and more and more people are becoming renters. The main reason? Housing is expensive everywhere, not just in places like the Bay Area, where the median home price is over $1 million, but in small cities like Boise, Idaho, where half of all renters spend over 30 percent of their income on rent.
HGTV will probably never take on politically charged topics and risk losing its existing audience or advertising sponsors, so forget hard-hitters about the urban condition. The network’s whole reason for existence is escapism a la shiplap. But that doesn’t mean HGTV can’t make shows that target a key audience: every single person who is not a wealthy suburban couple taking out a new mortgage and trying to create their dream home through renovation.
The first way to do this is to create a show involving renting. I assure the network that finding a suitable place to rent within one’s budget is way more exhausting and dramatic than driving around to pick one of three drab ranches to lobotomize. What if Mike Holmes came back to tour apartments with prospective tenants and teach them about tenant’s rights or the warning signs we should look for that tell us that this reasonable-looking apartment is actually a toxic waste dump of code violations? Here’s an even simpler idea: instead of House Hunters, I’d like to see Reasonably Priced Apartment Hunters. I can picture it now: Colleen (24) is a graduate student in Global History at a private university, has to live on a puny stipend, and is $60,000 in student loan debt. Her roommates are Nicole (23), who is currently job searching, and Jared (25), a line cook at a local bistro. They’re looking for a three-bedroom apartment close to public transit, and their rent budget is an absolute maximum of $700 per person. Colleen wants an apartment with a dishwasher. Nicole has a cat, so the apartment must accept pets. Jared insists on a second bathroom. Can these broke and sad individuals find a compromise?
Speaking of broke and sad, let’s talk about reasonable decorating budgets. Sure, Design on a Dime is still periodically running, but its recent seasons cater more to the flipping narrative (Candice Olson would never rip out perfectly good kitchen cabinets) in order to compete with the network’s hotter shows. Plus, even its $2,500 budget is out of reach for a lot of people, especially considering that amount only covers a single room. However, a relaunch of Decorating Cents, with its budget of a mere $500, would be the perfect fit for young adults and college students. If HGTV is wondering about corporate sponsorships for shows peddling to people looking to style on a budget, I’m sure Ikea would love to lend a hand.
A renter-friendly show would be about more than budget—and it would return HGTV to its roots. Most of us who rent aren’t allowed to gut our kitchens or open up our floorplans. (Hell, some of us aren’t even allowed to paint our walls.) Unlike today’s flipper-heavy lineup, the early HGTV decorating shows such as Decorating with Style rarely, if ever, involved whole-scale wall-destroying renovations. These shows were about freshening up a dated room on a very tight budget, something many millennial apartment dwellers and penny-pinching families would find useful. Forget tiny houses—teach me how to make a 400-square-foot studio a place I can actually invite friends to without them having to complete an obstacle course of tightly packed pieces of furniture. (Oh, I also can’t paint anything, and everything has to be hung with Command strips.)
The show should also reflect how home-improvement projects actually happen in the real world. HGTV is starting to budge on its “highly polished transformation project by miracle twosome” trope. The mother-daughter show Good Bones is more honest about the dirty work involved in gutting a house, and it shows the contractors and construction crews that actually work on the projects instead of hiding them behind the scenes and pretending the two hosts do the entire project themselves. (Looking at you, Chip Gaines.) This is a good start, but it’s only a start: HGTV needs to reintroduce the viewer’s (and on-screen client’s) sense of agency. The old HGTV shows were full of detailed how-tos: re-varnishing a wood dresser, making your own curtains, decluttering, and repairing scratched floors. Now, the clients go away to some mystical ether, all the hard work is done by heroic individuals, and the clients return to a meticulously decorated wonder-house. But I would much rather know how to properly hang a wall shelf myself instead of disappearing for two weeks while attractive strangers do it for me. Repairing a scratched floor is a skill every renter would love to possess. There could be an entire show about cleaning a place up in order to get one’s security deposit back, or a segment devoted to Ikea hacks.
As part of its return to reality, HGTV should also look more like the real people who actually exist in America. The network has occasionally thrown in minority homeowners on episodes of its shows as if to hold up a sign that says “We’re Tolerant!” Now, they’re at least trying: The network’s hit spinoff Flip or Flop Fort Worth is hosted by a black couple, Andy and Ashley Williams, and Miami’s Dave and Chenoa Rivera host one of HGTV’s newest shows, Rustic Rehab. But the network’s only gay host ever was Color Splash’s David Bromstad, who came out long after the show ended. In 2017, HGTV tested (and quickly abandoned) a pilot with two gay hosts called Down to the Studs, which, if you couldn’t tell by the name, can only be described as fetishizing, catering primarily to the straight female gaze. The network needs to do a better job of hiring LGBTQ show hosts without reverting to stereotypes.
Most HGTV shows are centered around couples, whether as hosts or as subjects. (After multiple seasons of Fixer Upper, Good Bones’ mother-daughter co-hosts felt extremely refreshing.) The couples themselves are woefully stereotypical: the wise and prudent woman, her dopey but lovable husband, and their 2.5 kids. I’ve never seen a couple on the network who doesn’t have or plan to have children. Finally, duos like the Gainses set unrealistic expectations about what coupledom (especially while renovating a house) should be like. How can two people work together on stressful, high-energy projects and never once get into a big fight? (Perhaps they can’t: At least one HGTV couple has had a high-profile divorce off camera.) Frankly, this viewer wants to know, why do two people have to be in love to smash up a perfectly good bungalow in the first place? Can’t folks work together on home-improvement projects as friends, roommates, or, even better, alone?
HGTV is the place where millions of Americans get their information about buildings and interior design. It should serve its function as a helpful resource for all people looking to spruce up their spaces and have fun doing it. It’s time that the network expand past the tired real estate and flipper narratives. Instead, HGTV should reflect the realities of American housing. It should begin to look less like an escapist suburban fantasy and more like the real world and the people living in it.
Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer and is currently a graduate student in Acoustics as part of a joint program between Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory, where her focus is in architectural acoustics.