HGTV still growing after 10 years

Sunday, November 28, 2004

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Ken Lowe had an idea that every room in the house -- and the grounds outside -- could have its own television show.

The idea became Home & Garden Television.

Since it went on the air a decade ago, HGTV has become one of America's most recognized cable brands, reaching 87 million households and sprouting sister networks for E.W. Scripps Co.

"Not everybody recognized -- maybe even some of us who were there that fateful morning on Dec. 30, 1994, when we pushed the button and launched HGTV -- the impact this network would have," said Lowe, now president and CEO of Cincinnati-based Scripps.

Before HGTV, fixing up the house and working on the yard was largely the province of PBS' "This Old House" and "Victory Garden." Now, it's prime time fare -- ABC's remodeling hit "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

Still, nobody does home and gardening 24/7 like Knoxville-based HGTV, which has broken into the top tier of cable networks with an 80 percent growth in audience since 1998.

HGTV is projected to end 2004 with a 12-month average prime-time rating of 0.9, putting it on a par with Discover and TLC, according to the network.

"This station has changed my life. It's all I watch," said Paula Zirinsky, public affairs director for a New York law firm and wife of an architect. "I have never seen 'The Sopranos,' never saw 'Sex and the City,' never saw 'Desperate Housewives.' Why, when I can watch 'Divine Design'?"

Kim Garretson, an editor for the Web magazine, says HGTV is also a favorite in the homebuilding and remodeling trade.

"This might seem surprising since the network shows are aimed at consumers, and mostly women. But if you think about it, the industry's product is one that only a TV network can bring alive and really show off," Garretson said.

Ed Spray, the retiring president of Scripps Networks, which oversees HGTV, said that within two months of starting HGTV "we knew we had something."

"I recall going to the home show here [in Knoxville] in February of 1995. We had a little booth. And people kept running by and saying how much they loved the shows. That was my first direct contact with real people watching us," Spray said.

10,000 phone calls

In 1997, HGTV did its first viewer call-in show, with no promotion. The network had 10,000 calls in two hours. Later that year, it broadcast its Web address for the first time. The computer jammed with 50,000 e-mails from 47 states.

By the next year, HGTV began making a profit -- more than a year ahead of schedule.

Meantime, Scripps has acquired the Food Network, and started two others: DIY-Do It Yourself Network, and Fine Living. (Scripps also has acquired the Shop At Home network -- a future venue for HGTV merchandise -- and the country music channel, Great American Country.)

HGTV and Scripps Networks have gone from six employees a decade ago to 650 in Knoxville alone, with offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and programming reaching more than 20 countries.

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, says HGTV has used a mixture of information and entertainment to capture both a core audience interested in home improvement and channel surfers who see it as a spectator sport.

How long will the popularity last?

"Walk into any hardware store," he said. "Go back to the paint department. You will see 600 different samples of colors. My guess is people won't get tired of repainting their walls until they have gone through all of them."

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