In this age of "peak TV," when hundreds of intricate and highquality shows must fight for survival, the success of a milquetoast show like House Hunters barely makes sense: The proudly formulaic HGTV series follows random homebuyers as they pat down laminate countertops and calmly discuss closet space.
But to the astonishment of rival networks, House Hunters remains one of the most unlikely and unstoppable juggernauts on TV. The show last year aired a staggering 447 new episodes - far more than the typical 12-to-22-episode cable season - and helped HGTV become one of the most-watched cable networks in America.
House Hunters serves as a fascinating counter-example to some of the TV business' biggest anxieties, including the growing costs and competition of scripted dramas and the rise of "cord-cutters" moving their viewing online. House Hunters producers spend next to nothing on stars or storylines, do little to groom an Internet audience - and still consistently attract 25 million U.S. viewers every month.
"It's happy television. It's so safe. It's like an old sweater," said Terri Murray, the executive producer of House Hunters and its vast array of specials and spinoffs. "You can walk away from it because the storyline is so simple, the structure is so repetitive, that you can come back and already know what's missing."
At 17 years old - more than a lifetime in cable years - House Hunters has defied TV gravity, and network executives liken its cost, simplicity and timelessness to their version of Wheel of Fortune or the nightly news. The franchise, which aired 26 episodes in 1999, has since exploded, airing an average of 406 episodes a year since the start of 2012.
The show's simple structure - shoppers tour three potential homes, then decide on their favourite - is brazenly paint-by-number: Murray called it "so formatted it's kind of a no-brainer" to make. The blog PopSugar in November compiled a list of 24 things that happen every episode, from "A Buyer Says 'Wow!' in an Entryway" to "Retro Details Are Identified and Scorned."
But the show's special blend of "property voyeurism," as network executives call it, has allowed for the creation of about 20 specials and spinoffs, including Tiny House Hunters, House Hunters: Offthe Grid and Houseboat Hunters.
So what keeps viewers so thoroughly addicted? It has game elements, it's family-friendly and it features random strangers virtually guaranteed to charm, surprise or annoy. Allison Page, the general manager of HGTV at Scripps Networks Interactive, the media giant that also owns the Food Network, calls it TV "comfort food": An easy way to enjoy the otherwise baffling and convoluted business of buying a home.
"It boils down what is a stressful and dramatic experience in real life," Page said, "to a satisfying, entertaining half-hour of television with a guaranteed resolution, every night."
House Hunters' tidy storytelling may help explain why it thrived as America's broader housing economy collapsed. Viewership was strong during the housing bubble of the mid-2000s, when easy credit allowed pretty much everyone to buy a home.
But the show really took offas mass foreclosures and the rise of renting dropped American home ownership to a 50-year low. The annual count of new House Hunters episodes tripled between the peak of the bubble, in 2005, and the Great Recession's official end, in 2009.
That booming growth has forced producers to build an unprecedented show-making machine. There are never fewer than 15 camera crews out shooting a new episode at any given time across the United States. Another 25 teams of directors, camera chiefs, sound technicians and local fixers span the world for the show's globetrotting spinoff, House Hunters International.
DREAM ON, CHOOSY BUYER
Think House Hunters is a snooze? It could be, if it weren't for all of the show's picky home buyers. Here are five common complaints that have viewers rolling their eyes:
"I love this house, but the paint colours are all wrong." Our response: Paint costs around $30 a can, so if that's all that's wrong with the house, you're laughing.
"This house only has two bathrooms."
Our response: That's already two too many bathrooms to have to clean.
"My neighbours can see into my yard."
Our response: Perhaps suburbia isn't your best bet.
"This house will be great once we rip the whole thing apart and redo it."
Our response: You are brave.
"That giant palm tree is obstructing my ocean view."
Our response: Please just stop now.