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Makeover junkies find comfy home on HGTV

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ATLANTA — Do you consider fresh paint a fragrance? Find wallpaper books fascinating? Salivate over sod samples?

If so, chances are you're among the masses whose remote controls seem to tune automatically to HGTV — the Home and Garden Television Network. It's television for the kind of people who like to look into the windows of houses they drive past at night.

Ten years and 28,000 gallons of paint since going on the air on Dec. 30, 1994, HGTV has become part of cable packages across the country, reaching 87 million homes — many of them undoubtedly ripe for redo.

Along the way, the network, based in Knoxville, Tenn., has garnered a base of fiercely loyal fans who prefer plots that revolve around faux finishes and fabric samples. A recent survey by independent media analyst Jack Myers that tracked viewers' "emotional connection" to networks showed HGTV second only to NBC among women.

"Forget 'Desperate Housewives,' " says accountant Faith Chisolm, 31, of Canton, Ga. "Give me 'Landscapers' Challenge' or 'Designers' Challenge' 24-7."

Teresa Wheeler, 41, a Web developer from Douglasville, Ga., adds: "You get sucked into it. You watch one show after another."

That's exactly what Ken Lowe, now president and CEO of the E.W. Scripps Co., hoped for when he approached his bosses with the idea that became HGTV. Lowe, who says he's a "frustrated architect," drew a house in which every room from attic to cellar was a TV show.

When HGTV began, home rehab shows consisted largely of public television's "This Old House," now 25 years old and shown in reruns on HGTV. But home improvement has spread like mildew under the sink, making its way onto the major national networks. ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is currently a Top-20-rated show.

At first HGTV producers tried to feature celebrities — pairing HGTV host Joe Ruggiero with singer Leslie Uggams or showing off weatherman Willard Scott's home. But, said HGTV president Burton Jablin, "It turned out celebrities didn't matter all that much."

A show called "Designing for the Sexes" that first aired about six years ago added an element of drama to the concept of watching paint dry: He likes Danish modern; she likes Victorian. Can they decorate their dining room without hurling the china?

Combining the skills of marriage counselor and wrestling referee, designer Michael Payne rode to the rescue in each episode, forging a compromise that allowed families to live happily ever after in perfect color coordination.

"Designing for the Sexes," now available only in reruns, sparked a new genre of programming with real people and story lines about buying houses ("House Hunters"), selling houses ("Designed to Sell"), redoing exteriors ("Curb Appeal") and remaking rooms ("Mission Organization").

Metro Atlanta housewife and commercial actress Kim Banta sent in shots of her cluttered craft room to be featured on a segment of "Mission Organization."

Atlanta organizer Monica Ricci of Catalyst Organizing Solutions helped straighten out the mess for an episode that aired recently — one of four featuring Ricci.

Banta's only complaint is that producers left her husband Bruce, a Coca-Cola executive, on the cutting room floor.

"Through the magic of television, they wiped my husband off the face of the Earth," she said. "But I do love the room. It was worth it."

"Mission Organization" focuses on the fight against disorder. Other HGTV competition is a little more personal.

Atlanta designer Anne Vincent had to beat out two local colleagues to decorate a Lake Lanier great room when "Designers' Challenge" came to town. She did it using faux Venetian plaster and vintage pine.

"While I compete with other designers for work, it's not usually this blatant," Vincent said.

Homeowners pay for their own projects on "Designers' Challenge," although the design advice is free. Producers require a minimum decorating budget of $20,000 — significantly more for bathrooms or kitchens.

Other more economy-minded HGTV shows furnish advice, labor and materials. "Sensible Chic" copies rooms ranging as high as $100,000 from top designers and decorator show rooms for around $2,000. "Design on a Dime" has $1,000 budget. "Decorating Cents" redoes rooms for only $500.

On New Year's Day, HGTV will introduce "Design Remix," a show that redoes a room with an even lower budget — $50 and a coat of paint. Joan Steffend, the former Minneapolis TV news anchor who hosts "Decorating Cents," said she was hooked on the concept of her show because she's a born bargain-hunter. Steffend will host two HGTV specials on New Year's Day — a live telecast of the Tournament of Roses Parade and a tour of the network's 2005 Dream Home in Tyler, Texas. Through her work on "Decorating Cents" and watching other HGTV shows, Steffend said she has become emboldened to try new things on her own.

"My husband laughs because he never knows what color something's going to be when he comes home," she said.

HGTV viewers say much the same.

"I changed the color in my den from eggshell to grays and burgundies and blacks to accommodate some Civil War prints," said Steve Ramey, 55, of Buford, Ga. He also added gas logs and new carpeting. For professional designers, HGTV is a mixed blessing, said Jo Rabaut, president of the Georgia chapter of the American Society of Interior Design.

More students are entering design school, and designers are getting more calls, she said. But viewers can base unrealistic expectations on what they see on television.

On HGTV, from "Before" to "After" takes only half an hour.

"In Atlanta traffic," she said, "we couldn't even drive to the mall to buy a chair in that amount of time."

Gayle White writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.