Could House Hunters Be HGTV’s Gateway Drug?

After 16 years, it's driving the network to record ratings

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Usually by the time a TV franchise hits its 16th year, it has begun running on fumes. But not HGTV's House Hunters, which is going stronger than ever, with the franchise's ratings up 8 percent this year. "House Hunters represents everything that people love about HGTV, all wrapped up in one show, which is buying and loving homes," said the network's president, Kathleen Finch.

The show, which follows homeowners-to-be as they tour three properties and settle on one to purchase, "is appealing to both people who have not yet bought a home and people who have bought a home," said Brian Balthazar, vp, original programming, who oversees the series. "It's that voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall feeling and lets you live vicariously through a set of homeowners."

HGTV gets a regular influx of new viewers.HGTV

Since debuting in 1999, House Hunters has also become a gateway drug for HGTV. It pulls new viewers into the network and gets them hooked on other programming, whether it's the seven House Hunters spinoff series (including House Hunters International, Renovation, Where Are They Now, Tiny House Hunters and Off the Grid—there have also been 16 House Hunters specials) or HGTV's other hit shows like Ellen's Design Challenge, Fixer Upper and Brother vs. Brother. "It's an entrée to the network for new generations of HGTV fans," said Finch. "Next thing they know, they're watching HGTV all the time."

That regular influx of new viewers helped drive the cable network—currently No. 8 in adults 25-54 and No. 3 in women 25-54—to its highest rated May ever, capping 12 months of year-over-year ratings gains. During the past month, HGTV scored prime-time victories four nights in adults and women 25-54, thanks to House Hunters episodes.

Those soaring ratings also validate the network's risky decision in 2008 to recommit to the franchise in two major ways: by increasing the budget to produce a large number of original episodes, which rated 15 percent higher than repeats, and airing new episodes of House Hunters and House Hunters International every weeknight at 10 and 10:30 (where more than 25 million viewers watch them each month).

"We said, how much money would it take to make enough premieres to have one on every night?" said Finch, who will air 445 episodes of her eight House Hunters series in 2015 (including 169 episodes each of House Hunters and House Hunters International). "We figured out that taking our programming dollars and dedicating a very large percentage of them to the House Hunters franchise was a good thing to do."

Now, "viewers tune in every single night because they know they're going to get fresh content," said Finch. "We like to think of it as the evening news of HGTV. It's such a reliable ratings juggernaut."

The network expects its House Hunters momentum to continue for a long time.HGTV

As such, the show offers "a consistency that advertisers love," said Donna Stephens, svp, national ad sales, HGTV. "It's great integration for a lot of categories," including movies (a London-themed episode helped promote the family film Paddington), appliances, financial and tourism boards like Travel Michigan, which has been advertising with the show and network since 2009.

"They shared a stat with us that 90 percent of their viewership is live, so this isn't DVRed. People are tuning in and watching, and it's not as if you have to sit there and monitor the content; it's great content," said David West, vp, Travel Michigan. "It helped the Pure Michigan brand get nationally recognized."

The network expects that its House Hunters momentum will continue for years to come. "I don't see an end in sight," said Balthazar, "because the dream of buying a home is never going to go away." Added Finch: "As long as viewers love HGTV, they're going to love House Hunters."

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.