Television networks are fighting to stave off a generation of cord cutters, and an unlikely contender has come out ahead. Despite the delay in millennial homeownership, HGTV, home to crafty designers and savvy house flippers, is increasingly the destination of young audiences. The basic cable channel reports that it drew more than 4.5 million weekly viewers age 21-34 in the last quarter — 16 percent more than last year.
What’s behind it all? The everlasting American Dream, say some industry watchers.
“There’s a fantasy of how millennials want to live,” said Miranda Banks, an associate professor of visual and media arts at Emerson College. “It’s a fantasy that maybe their parents or grandparents were capable of living out at that point in their lives, but they may not be able to now due to student debt.”
Indeed, the fantasy has remained just that for many, and student loans are only the beginning. Trulia, an online real estate site, recently reported that the number of starter homes on the market nationwide dropped by 12.3 percent between April 2015 and April 2016. And as an unfortunate bonus, those seeking starter homes must now part with approximately 1.3 percent more of their income than in April 2015.
To a generation drawn to cheaper, DIY living, it’s all significant. Two of the most popular HGTV series among millennials are “Fixer Upper,” starring Chip and Joanna Gaines, and “Flip or Flop,” starring Tarek and Christina El Moussa. While homeownership plays a role in both series, the Gaineses and the El Moussas — two cheery couples practically embodying the American Dream themselves — consistently take on low-cost projects, such as installing a backsplash or building furniture, that could be useful to renters as well.
According to HGTV general manager Allison Page, home makeover series appeal to both genders, whereas the design-based series more prominent in the past had relatively low levels of male viewership. Coupled with the DIY element, this wider appeal could contribute to the increase in younger fans.
“With shows like ‘Fixer Upper,’ ‘Flip or Flop,’ or ‘Property Brothers,’ there is design all over it and all through it, but there is more at stake because it’s a full-house renovation,” Page said. “That level of drama and high stakes paired with design is what brings in the biggest audience, including millennials.”
If drama bolsters the channel’s success with younger audiences, it is no new phenomenon. Competition series have long thrived, from NBC’s “The Voice” to Food Network’s “Chopped.” HGTV’s “Brother vs. Brother” pits television personalities Jonathan and Drew Scott against one another, and adds home improvement and house flipping to the mix.
Just as millennials love to put themselves into the shoes of the homeowners on screen, watching competition shows allows viewers to pick up on tips — and root for certain competitors.
“Everyone likes things done quickly, and then they think it might be possible for them to do it too,” Banks said. “Having people play with speed and something cheap plays into an activity that could be done by a millennial if they have a weekend and only so much money. Can you build your dream home?”
Page credits much of HGTV’s millennial viewership to the evergreen quality of the channel’s content. Many viewers lead busy lives, and being able to turn on the television without needing to have seen the previous episode is appealing.
“Specific to millennials, we’re excited,” Page said. “The reason is because it proves that we’re successfully feeding our future.”