I Want My HGTV

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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"Do you like HGTV?" I was asked at a dinner party, not long ago. What a question! I'm a 40-year-old married woman. Do I enjoy dinner parties and trips to Tuscany? Do I own more than one item of Ann Taylor clothing? Have I regretfully consigned my high heels to the back of the closet? Yes, yes, and yes! Of course I like HGTV. I am the reason that HGTV exists.

As far as I am concerned, the only problem with HGTV is that there isn't enough of it. I've watched the same episodes of "Property Brothers," "Kitchen Cousins" and "House Hunters Renovation" at least three times apiece. The other night, after perusing an entire evening's lineup of overworked reruns, I regretfully flipped over to the History Channel. Sure, I'd already seen the documentary about the Lost Gospels, but not as recently.

At least the History Channel has an excuse (sort of). After a major rebranding in 2008, it has basically stopped producing new documentaries, in favor of cheaper-to-make reality shows, which I don't watch. So of course I've seen all their shows before. On the other hand, I do watch HGTV's reality shows, and since HGTV has been around for a couple of decades now, it should have an extensive back catalog. So why, I asked myself, do they limit reruns to the last couple of years?

The answer to the question is obvious almost as soon as you ask it: The older houses would look too dated. This isn't a huge problem with House Hunters, but for virtually any other show, small details would put off the viewer: the ubiquitous travertine and "Tuscan style" pictures of grapes from the late 1990s and early 2000s; the flashy glass backsplashes that are already on their way out almost as quickly as they came in. So HGTV confines itself to the last couple of years, when the renovations will still look relatively fresh.

What's interesting to contemplate is how this changes the underlying economics of the network. Most networks that create a successful show can expect syndication revenue to make up the bottom line. That's less true of reality shows, of course, but there's still quite a bit of scope in a well-designed show. Food Network can run old episodes of "Chopped," and they'll be no less enjoyable simply because watermelon and feta salad is sooooooo 2012. Making a television show is like making a capital investment: Make the show once, and you can continue making money off it for years to come.

HGTV's products, on the other hand, are essentially a perishable good. A 2008 episode of a kitchen renovation show has essentially expired. It cannot be safely aired.

Except that this isn't quite right, either. These things go in cycles. Whatever was au courant 15 years ago is dated and horrible. But whatever was au courant 25 to 30 years ago is interestingly outre. And whatever was au courant 50 to 60 years ago is stylishly retro. Which suggests that pretty soon now, HGTV's back catalog will become newly valuable for "Can you believe what we used to do to our houses?" nostalgia tours. Give it a few more decades, and HGTV can air them again as sources of fresh new decorating ideas.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net