As ‘Fixer Upper’ Ends, HGTV Builds a Roster of Power (Tool) Couples


HGTV is applying this formula vigorously; 19 of its current series are toplined by duos, with more on the way. Some of the emerging shows star siblings (“Restored by the Fords”) or parent-child teams (“Good Bones”), but most revolve around couples.

“You can’t make another Chip and Jo,” said Ms. Weidhorn, who still works with HGTV, now as the head of her own unscripted-content production company, 547 Barnard. “They had their own lifestyle, their own world. But you can set out to find duos who make viewers say, ‘Relationship goals!’ or ‘Hey, I talk to my brother like that.’ Viewers like to see their own relationships reflected in the talent.”

Many of those viewers are enjoying the network in twos. “The fact is, our viewers are duos themselves,” said Kathleen Finch, the chief lifestyle brands officer for Discovery Inc., which owns HGTV. “What we hear is, ‘My husband and I sit on the couch together and watch.’”

HGTV is so focused on finding talent that reflects that audience, it sometimes lets the couch couples cross through the screen. Three years ago, Dave and Chenoa Rivera — who left their tourism and medical sales jobs to start renovating properties in Paradise, Calif. — were two of the viewers Ms. Finch describes.

Photo

Dave and Chenoa Rivera left other jobs to start renovating properties in Paradise, Calif. Their show, “Rustic Rehab,” has its premiere on April 26.

Credit
HGTV

“We had been watching ‘Flip or Flop,’ and I was like, ‘Hey, we do this,’” Ms. Rivera said by phone.

She sent HGTV’s casting inbox an email that described the renovations projects she and Mr. Rivera collaborate on and included their family Christmas photo. A year later, she heard from a producer. The Riveras shot a pilot and eventually got a series greenlight. Their show, “Rustic Rehab,” which has its premiere on April 26, paints them as savvy and down-to-earth, can-do hustlers in a woodsy corner of California.

Conceptually, “Rehab” follows the blueprint of “Flip or Flop,” the franchise that has become HGTV’s go-to format for breaking couple talent. Network executives are especially excited about two in particular: “Flip or Flop Vegas,” with the mixed martial arts fighter Bristol Marunde and his Realtor wife, Aubrey; and “Flip or Flop Nashville,” with the former N.F.L. player DeRon Jenkins and Page Turner, a real estate broker.

“Bristol and Aubrey’s projects all have this fun, blingy vibe,” Ms. Finch said. “DeRon and Page are exes, which adds this sweet element to the show: They’ll roll their eyes at things and say, ‘And that’s why we’re not together anymore.’” The shows’ initial seasons have averaged around 1.2 million viewers per episode. (By comparison: “Fixer Upper” has averaged 2.8 million viewers per episode in its fifth and final season.)

Then there are the original “Flip or Flop” stars: Christina and Tarek El Moussa, who recently shot their first episodes since 2016, for a new season that starts May 31. The El Moussas drew “through-the-roof, gangbusters” numbers for HGTV, according to Ms. Finch; their return to the network will probably do even better. That’s because the El Moussas have divorced — proving, in the process, how heavily invested their fans were in their personal lives. A $13.99 all-HGTV edition of “People” currently on newsstands dedicates eight pages to the former couple, calling them “devoted to their kids — and their hit show” and chronicling Ms. El Moussa’s post-divorce dating life.

The magazine is more evidence that the network’s duos have blown past the traditional star potential of home-television talent. (“It’s like the Tiger Beat of HGTV!” Ms. Finch said.)

But HGTV stars need more than chemistry and interesting personal lives: They have to actually know their way around a hammer, or at least look and sound as if they do on television.

Which leads to hires like the mellow, Pittsburgh-based Leanne and Steve Ford, of “Restored by the Fords.” The siblings have been at their respective trades for years — hers in design, his in construction — and their signature style skews more modern and minimal than the typical HGTV aesthetic.

Photo

The siblings Leanne and Steve Ford are the hosts of “Restored by the Fords.”

Credit
Heather Mull/HGTV

“Restored by the Fords” debuted in January and has averaged nearly 1.7 million viewers per episode (it is HGTV’s best-rated new program this year among viewers 25 to 54). So “Fords” is off to a good start, and its stars’ profiles are on the rise. “Our Instagrams are booming,” Ms. Ford said by phone.

Mr. Ford, conferenced in on the same call, went silent for a moment.

“Steve?” Ms. Ford said, an edge of sisterly annoyance creeping into her voice.

Mr. Ford apologized. “Somebody just drove by and yelled over the fence to me, ‘Hey, we like your show!’” he said, sounding bewildered.

Bewilderment does seem to be the de facto response to becoming an HGTV power duo, even for the Gaineses. “No matter how many times someone asks me to sign their hat or asks Jo for a picture, it still feels surreal,” Mr. Gaines, whose memoir “Capital Gaines” is a current best seller, wrote in an email during an earlier interview. “We don’t think of ourselves as ‘famous’ even now.”

Erin Napier, a co-host of “Home Town,” can empathize. On her show, she and her husband, Ben, renovate homes in Laurel, Miss., where they grew up. In its second season, “Home Town” was watched by an average of 1.5 million viewers per episode — the fame that has followed has made Laurel feel somehow even smaller to Ms. Napier.

Photo

Erin and Ben Napier are the hosts of “Home Town.” They renovate homes in Laurel, Miss., where they grew up.

Credit
Todd Douglas/HGTV

“I am an introvert,” she said by phone. “I get anxious when people who don’t know me want to talk at the grocery store.”

Mr. Napier, a woodworker, was nearby with their 3-month-old daughter, Helen. “People are spending their spring breaks in Laurel,” he said. “If you’d told me that 10 years ago, I’d have laughed.” (He might have taken a lesson from the trajectory of the Gaineses, who have brought more tourists to Waco — the vacation rentals they own sometimes sell out up to a year in advance.) In Laurel, “Home Town” fans shop for goods inspired by the show at the Napiers’ Front Street boutique, Laurel Mercantile Co., and cruise past the couple’s 1920s Craftsman home.

“I was planting flowers on my front porch earlier today,” Ms. Napier said. “About 15 tourists drove by and filmed me doing it.”

Such anecdotes hint at why HGTV’s duos have become so popular — and crucial to the network’s success. They blur the line between fame and regular life, talking on TV the way you imagine they would if you invited them to dinner.

But Ms. Napier suspects there’s something more subtle drawing people to her show and her street. “Home Town” — like many HGTV shows — celebrates common experiences that other types of TV ignore or mock: married life, modest budgets, settling down in the place where you grew up.

“When I was a teenager, I thought I was going to go work in publishing in New York,” Ms. Napier said. “But once I left Laurel, I realized how special it was. It didn’t matter that it was small. I thought, if the opportunity I want isn’t there — well, I’ll just make it.”

So she returned. She married Mr. Napier, who plays a lumberjack mascot at town events. Together they found stardom on a network that learned a lesson about construction down in Waco six years back: Put two authentic-seeming people on camera, and the audience will follow them — sometimes, all the way to their front porch.

Continue reading the main story