How Did HGTV ‘Stars’ Become Celebrities?

Chip and Joanna Gaines (Photo by Mireya Acierto/FilmMagic)

Home and Garden Television, better known as HGTV, has forged a reputation as a television ratings giant in the past couple of years, more than two decades after the channel launched in 1994. Late last year, Kate Wagner noted the timeliness of the channel’s launch, given its niche — real estate as reality television programming: it surfaced amid the Clinton administration’s push for “huge mortgage reforms in order to stimulate growth in the home-building sector and provide more housing for lower-income Americans.” As home sales spiked, HGTV offered a glimpse into “the national home-buying and home-selling fervor,” Wagner wrote.

And interest in the channel’s offerings has not waned. Last year, an academic design journal devoted an entire issue to “Learning from HGTV.” An academic paper in American Quarterly in 2012 noted that HGTV briefly “became the object of public scorn” in the wake of the collapse of the housing market, as Americans found the programming “complicit” for its tendency to depict homes as “investments.” But it survived, and even thrived, as the players in its shows land celebrity magazine cover after cover.

Brooks Barnes, in his monthly “Scene Stealers” column for the New York Times Style section this weekend, noted that Tarek and Christina El Moussa, the couple in one of its hit shows, Flip or Flop, were featured on the cover of In Touch Weekly at least 14 times, with more than 90 articles on them.

“Puzzled, I asked a few Hollywood publicists if they could explain why the celebrity news media cared so much about the El Moussas. The head of publicity for one big studio responded, ‘Is that a fragrance?’” Barnes wrote.

Barnes sees the El Moussas as “fascinating — not as newsmakers, but as a window into the evolving celebrity news business.” A former US Weekly and Hollywood Reporter editor tells him the evolution is due to “the effects of a culturally divided America.”

Barnes explains President Donald Trump is divisive; tabloid magazines catch heat for putting him or his relations on their covers. The Kardashians’ ratings “have plummeted,” and “most movie stars have little tabloid tread left on them,” he adds, noting that Jennifer Aniston is still not pregnant. Plus, there’s the hunger for clicks in our age of digital news: “If there is no news, just glom onto something tiny. In Touch recently did an entire article about a basic Instagram post by Mr. El Moussa. (See it here!’),” Barnes wrote.

Over on The Ringer, Amanda Dobbins wrote late last year, in a piece titled “The End of Celebrity As We Know It,” that more than three million people regularly watch Flip or Flop, “which is more than the number of people who saw Will Smith’s most recent movie or bought Lady Gaga’s album.” She interviewed Lindsey Weber of the podcast Who Weekly, which regular discusses HGTV stars: “Anyone can do anything on the internet now. So now we have all these people that just exist because we have a democratic platform where anyone can do something that makes them notable,” Weber told her. Dobbins concluded, “If you are looking for a career change right now, you could do worse than midlevel celebrity; the market has never been more open.”

But is the rise of HGTV celebrities a window into, or a reprieve from, a “culturally divided America”?

Tarek and Christina El Moussa (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

The El Moussas are a special case in HGTV-land, as much of the recent attention on them has centered around their divorce. While their first ratings bump was due to a viewer noticing a lump on Tarek’s neck that ended up being thyroid cancer (publicized by US Weekly and the Today show), their first People magazine cover happened after TMZ reported that a despondent Tarek, post-separation, was found by police in a park with a gun in his backpack.

Most of HGTV’s stars carry less drama, making their celebrity more mystifying. The former US Weekly editor speculated to Barnes that “there’s a compelling American dream, lemon-into-lemonade factor with all these reality families… Foreclosures into riches, sex tape into stardom, ugly houses into pretty ones.”

Taffy Akner profiled Chip and Joanna Gaines of the HGTV show Fixer Upper, based in Waco, Texas, for Texas Monthly in October 2016. The Gaineses, Akner noted, have “repainted the map to include Waco as a legitimate tourist destination.”

Akner wrote:

“They have become very famous very quickly in a way that still surprises them. Just two years ago, they were an unknown contractor and decorator, respectively, flipping houses with a couple of hired subcontractors for some of the bigger jobs they took on. Now, not only is Fixer Upper one of HGTV’s top shows, the Gaineses have four hundred employees—four hundred employees—and their brand is nonstop.”

The season three finale was watched by five million people, “a larger audience than the one that watched the season finale (or any other episode) of Better Call Saul, an actual scripted drama with an ongoing plot on a channel that’s easier to find than HGTV,” Akner noted. When the pilot aired in 2013, it had 1.9 million viewers, according to Akner. A recent HGTV press release boasts that the couple drew more than 20 million viewers in the show’s fourth season, and are getting a new spin-off show.

But the Gaineses are largely drama-free. A network executive speculated to Akner that their charm is in “their perfect imperfections.”

“They have the kind of marriage and family you’d want. It’s not perfect. He does silly things, and they occasionally trip over their words or sweat on each other. They are the best of what’s real in life. It’s not a kind of fantasy—perfected, glossy, everything works every second. There’s an authenticity in their relationship and that comes through in the show,” the exec tells Akner.

Akner agrees, finding likability in the fact that they are “real-looking (beautiful) people” who often fail to sell their more staged televised moments, which actually works in their favor: “Their humility comes through, along with their realness… Their inability to truly pull off the lie is reassuring, because it makes all the other interactions, which are mundane and workaday and somehow also romantic because of that, feel very true.”

Akner sees in the surprising success of their “completely tension-free” show — why do we watch something when the teaser for it shows the reveal of its predictable successful outcome? — a respite from the “culturally divided America” Barnes’ former US Weekly editor cited: “The world is sunk in chaos, but if you want, you can spend an hour watching something go from bad to good, from messy to clean, from chaotic to peaceful. The possibility of it fills your batteries and allows you to continue.”

Katherine Rosman looked at yet another HGTV duo for the Times’ Style section last month: the “highly competitive” Scott brothers, whose various shows now outnumber them. Property Brothers is one of HGTV’s highest-ranking programs, Rosman writes, and the last season of Brother vs. Brother was watched by more than 14 million people and is aired in more than 150 countries. The Scotts were included among People Magazine’s Sexiest Men Alive in 2013, and scored their own cover this April. (The Gaineses had theirs last October, and have declined to guest star on Brother vs. Brother.)

Drew and Jonathan Scott (Photo by Todd Williamson/Invision for Bask-It-Style/AP Images)

Like Akner, Rosman sees the brothers’ shows as a balm in troubled times: “At a time when politics have riven the nation, an old-fashioned, wholesome shelter show is something many can agree on.” Jonathan and Drew Scott comes off as less earnest and pure in Rosman’s piece than the Gaineses seem in Akner’s piece, though they tell Rosman their appeal is “their wholesomeness”:

“It’s safe programming,” Drew said over a gluten-free lunch quickly eaten amid the filming of Brother vs. Brother. “The shows are not so foofy that guys don’t want to watch, kids want to watch because we’re goofy and women appreciate it because you’re getting real design knowledge.”

USA Today wrote about HGTV’s “steady diet of programming comfort food” in July of last year, highlighting it as the top-rated entertainment channel on cable in prime time, “a remarkable climb for a network that ranked 16th overall in 2012.” In 2016, HGTV’s ratings were up 13 percent, ranked fifth place with 1.7 million viewers “at a time when many top cable networks are in decline.” (According to their own press release, 2016 was HGTV’s “highest-rated, most-watched year ever” and its “10th consecutive year as the #1 cable network among upscale women.”)

A pollster interviewed by USA Today agreed with Rosner and Akner that the channel’s appeal comes from providing downy viewing in dark times:

“HGTV offers a safe and uplifting environment during these times,”  Gerry Philpott, president/CEO of E-Poll Market Research, noting headlines about negative politics and deadly world events. “It’s natural for people to look to escape with their entertainment choices.”