Home Truths: How HGTV, Magnolia, and Netflix Are Building a Massive Space in the Stream
Early in 2021, the particular fascination of my household became Home Again With the Fords, a new HGTV series from the sister-brother designer-contractor duo Leanne and Steve Ford, who work interior wonders in their native Pittsburgh. Leanne recently moved back to her hometown from Los Angeles, echoing a trajectory of many Americans her age who—either because of children or pandemic or both—decided to return to the nest and set up a more comfortable life close to family.
No less stylish a life, though. Leanne’s designs are by far the sleekest on HGTV, casual-chic dreamscapes full of warm earth tones and the satisfying convergence of different aesthetics—SoHo loft blending with Scandinavian rustic to alluring effect. As a TV personality, Leanne is offbeat and charming, though her banter with her brother is teasing and affectionate enough that the hashtag #SiblingsNotSpouses sometimes runs at the bottom of the screen. Partnerships on HGTV shows are always a little cloying like that. The Fords, though, manage to keep it mostly cool.
Home Again is a rich source of almost impossible aspiration; the gorgeous, fashionable remodels are expensive, and the lovely furniture we see in the final reveals usually isn’t even part of the budget. “It is staged,” says Leanne. “But they can keep it if they want. It is what I hope to fix if we do future seasons, so that it is soup to nuts. The hard part is that people use all their money on the construction. That one’s a tough one for me, as a designer. I want to leave and it all stays there.” This complicates the fantasy, money inevitably coming to bear as it does in nearly all things. Genially, Leanne encourages me to see the somewhat more limited possibilities of my own apartment. “I love the rental tricks,” she says. “You can change the lighting, you can actually take off the uppers. That being said, don’t expect to get your deposit back.”
Were I to follow Leanne’s suggestions, I would by no means be alone. An estimated $465 billion will be spent in the home-improvement industry in 2022, with owners (and, yes, some renters) taking sledgehammers and color swatches to their spaces in the hopes of living a better, prettier, more camera-ready life. Or, you know, just finally fixing the back deck that your cousin put a foot through two summers ago. HGTV has become the mascot and chief spiritual leader of this economy. The network was watched by some 60 million people per month in 2020, more viewers than anything else on cable that isn’t the relentless scream of 24-hour news networks.
They are by no means the only builder on the block. YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram are vast repositories of aspirational home content; swiping through a carousel of manicured stills or watching an echoing-audio home-tour video offers a more immediate version of HGTV’s delicate balance of invitation and alienation.
And there are emerging competitors in the TV market, like the upcoming Magnolia Network—a television outlet under the lifestyle company started by former HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines—and Netflix, which is swiftly erecting structures on the territory first settled by HGTV. If one wanted to, as I often have, one could spend whole weeks awash in nothing but discourse about marble countertops versus quartz ones, bearing happy witness to the ongoing wars between Shaker cabinets and the equally craved and dreaded open shelving. (Dreaded by me, anyway; I could never abide such a constant invitation to gaze at my own disorganization.) The domestic-design media boom has turned the idea of home into something terribly adaptable, full of possibility and never quite nice enough.
These shows are often described as harmless fluff, soothing and diverting entertainment free of all the prickly politics of the world outside. But, as happens with all growing phenomena eventually, home-design programming has taken on an actual weight, moving through the world with real consequence.
There is the story of Waco, Texas, where Chip and Joanna Gaines lay their scene, under the banner of Magnolia. Their HGTV series Fixer Upper was long Magnolia’s and HGTV’s flagship product, its success helping to hasten migration to Waco, bringing with it the attendant issues of gentrification and housing inequity that always arise—or are further highlighted—when a city suddenly becomes the locus of a trend. The Gaines empire has been forced into a consciousness about its role in the city—the company has, of late, been consulting with the local chapter of the NAACP and the Community Race Relations Coalition on racial-justice matters and given $200,000 to the cause—but their growing footprint has undeniably shifted the balance of the city and brought it the glare of the spotlight.
Other home-reno shows have had sizable impacts, affecting housing markets and reshaping neighborhoods in their respective communities. Husband-and-wife duo Ben and Erin Napier have completely transformed the faded southern city of Laurel, Mississippi, with the success of Home Town, which pairs locals with an affordable house and then gives it a dream makeover. Erin’s designs are graceful and homey, Ben’s carpentry is Nick Offerman-esque gentleman-builder artisanship. Small as Laurel is—population 18,000-ish and growing—the city’s post-Home Town story has been huge, the downtown once again bustling and prosperous, tourists and prospective home buyers flooding the area. The mayor of Laurel, Johnny Magee, says the Napier effect is nothing short of “amazing.” “We have people that have bought houses in the city of Laurel without ever physically looking at the house.”
Might all this national attention—bringing with it waves of migrants looking for their dream house and chasing a bit of the Home Town glow—badly alter the social fabric of a town like Laurel, where the median home price hovers around $100,000 and the median family income is only $30,000? When I pose the question of gentrification to the Napiers, they are surprised that the issue even comes up, telling me that it is the first time they’ve ever been asked about it. “Gentrification’s not really a thing here,” says Erin with a laugh. “No one’s trying to improve property values.”
“Gentrification has a negative context with it,” adds Ben, “because I think it’s about trying to push a certain group out of an area. And we’re not trying to do that. When we do get to work in areas that are lower income, we’re trying to improve it for the people who live there. That’s really important to us. Magee concurs. “We still are very modestly priced,” he says. “The cost of living and the cost of homes is still probably lower than most places in the state. People that want to buy homes can afford to buy homes.” The Napiers will soon apply their revivifying skills to a different municipality, Wetumpka, Alabama, in a new series somewhat ominously titled Home Town Takeover.