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HGTV at 20: Building for the Future While Staying True to Core

More than 20 years ago, Ken Lowe was compiling a folder of ideas he thought might make interesting home-improvement shows. Those ideas became the foundation of HGTV.

Even with the network in 96 million homes and solidly among the top 10 cable networks most months, sometimes Lowe — now chairman of the board, president and CEO of Scripps Networks Interactive, HGTV parent — is a bit taken aback by how big his baby has grown.

“Twenty years ago there were a lot of naysayers,” he says, noting that when HGTV launched in 1994 it was one of many new networks. “To my knowledge, only two made it — HGTV and History. There were a lot of good ideas in 1994, but not a lot of people who thought HGTV stood much of a chance.”

Today, HGTV is a household name thanks to hits like “Property Brothers” and the “House Hunters” franchise, and is readying an expansion into Asia.

“(Last year) was the highest-rated, most-watched year ever in HGTV history,” says Kathleen Finch, president, HGTV. For seven straight years, she says, HGTV has ranked No. 1 among women, a record she aims to keep. “That’s our core demo: home-owning, upscale, college-educated women. And men. We don’t discriminate.”

Lowe’s original vision for the network revolved around what he calls the Three I’s: ideas, information and inspiration, but the network has also done well with aspirational shows like “House Hunters International,” “Beachfront Bargain Hunt” and “Vacation House for Free.”

“Even if it is isn’t a world you’re necessarily going to live in, you still enjoy it vicariously,” Finch says. “We don’t tell a story that makes it completely unattainable, or say that you can’t ever live the lifestyle that these rich people do. Instead, we point out all the ways people live, with an emphasis that it could be you.”

Allison Page, general manager of HGTV, says the words she keeps in mind when developing new series are aspirational, attainable and fun. “If something hits all of those words, chances are it’s a potential fit for us,” Page says.

Most series are generated inhouse, but a few come from outside producers. “We’re very active in the development process, so even when things are brought to us we wind up tweaking them and co-developing them,” Page says.

Occasionally, they even obtain shows from HGTV’s male-skewing sister network DIY, like “Rehab Addict,” with Nicole Curtis, which officially moved to HGTV with its fifth-season premiere this month.

“That was an unusual case,” Finch says. “The show was an incredible hit, but when we started to look at who was watching, it was both men and women. It was an interesting opportunity. (We thought) let’s try her on HGTV and see if women like her. They did.”

Finch says the appeal of personalities like Curtis and Drew and Jonathan Scott — of “Property Brothers” fame — stems from the fact that they’re experts in their fields. Viewers trust them.

“That’s one of the reasons that, as a brand, HGTV’s been so successful,” Finch says. “We’re known for our expertise and the quality of our information. We’ve spawned a magazine. We’ve got home products. We’ve built an industry around the validity of our brand, and part of that is because we’re such sticklers when it comes to the people we put on TV to represent the network.”

“As a production company, it’s always optimal to have network partners that know exactly what they want. I don’t know of a network that understands its audience better than HGTV, which is a key reason why they have a large and loyal following,” says Chris Dorsey, president of Orion Entertainment, which produces programs such as “Living Big Sky” for the cabler.

HGTV-branded products almost sell themselves, while HGTV Magazine is a print hit. Becoming a top 10 cabler with several product lines was beyond Lowe’s wildest dreams when he conceived of the home and garden network.

“I was never sure we could get this cable network up to 25 million-30 million households,” Lowe says. “It became the little engine that could, and now we’re seeing that play out in countries around the world. That’s a little surreal.”

This summer Lowe experienced deja vu when meeting with Asian distributors at a media conference in Bali, Indonesia. “It was like a time machine — like it was 20 years ago and I was pitching to operators and distributors here in the States.”

Once again, Lowe made his case. In December, HGTV launches in Asia.

“We’re still growing,” he says. “I liken it to when someone renovates a house and adds on a room. I like to say we’re still adding rooms at HGTV. We’re going to continue to innovate and learn more about our audience, and bring them more sources of inspiration and entertainment.”

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