In September, Chip and Joanna Gaines—hosts of the wildly popular HGTV home-improvement show Fixer Upper, and key purveyors of the current vaguely artisanal American aesthetic—seemed to walk away from their burgeoning business empire. In a message to fans posted on the Web site of their Magnolia Market, the Gaineses thanked HGTV and the show’s production company, High Noon Entertainment, explaining that Season 5 of Fixer Upper would be their last. “Who knows what the future holds,” they wrote, “but we’re excited for whatever is around the bend and, in the meantime, we will definitely be staying in touch.”
Fans, and even casual TV viewers, were aghast at the Waco-based hosts’ decision to end the show—the tentpole of their growing media and retail efforts. But the couple insisted they just needed more time for themselves, spreading their message via People magazine and the Today show. It was hard to argue with their reasoning, which was certainly in keeping with their down-home brand.
But Chip and Joanna might not be out of the shiplap business just yet. According to an industry source who does business with HGTV parent company Scripps Networks, Chip and Joanna have met recently with at least one outlet to pitch a new show. Further, the source says, the two had been clashing with HGTV before they chose to end their series. The problems centered on the Gaines’ insistence on featuring products from their Magnolia Market line of home décor on Fixer Upper.
“They kept insisting on showing things with the Magnolia label, even though Scripps does not have a partnership with them on that stuff,” the source says. “This isn’t how business is done with Scripps. You have to come to some arrangement if you want to show your products on your HGTV show.”
The source said that the Gaineses had met with a few potential outlets about a new show. A limiting issue, the source said, is their still-existing contract with Scripps, which likely forbids them from doing another home-improvement show for another network. The source did not know if the Gaineses were pitching ideas for a series or a one-off special. “They’ve got to be pitching something in another format—maybe a talk show or something like that,” says the source.
Perhaps, then, their decision to leave Fixer Upper is not actually about family time, but about making a lateral move—and the trouble they’ve had serving more than one master. Given the number of opportunities the Gaineses are pursuing, this may be understandable. The extra hitch here is that several other entities also have a stake in Chip and Joanna’s continued high profile. For one, Chip and Joanna bringing their talents elsewhere could be troubling news for Discovery Communications, which is due to complete its acquisition of Scripps in early 2018, in a cash-and-stock deal worth $14.6 billion. Shareholders from both companies endorsed the merger November 17, but federal regulators have yet to approve it—and their sign off is not a sure thing, now that the Justice Department has indicated its interest in fostering competition in the industry by suing to block AT&T’s $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner.
In response to questions about the Gaines’ future plans, Brock Murphy, the director of public relations for Magnolia Market, said via e-mail that “Chip and Jo’s decision to leave Fixer Upper is truly just based on their wanting to catch their breath for a minute—to rest, refresh, and spend even more time with their family and growing businesses. It is not based on anything related to Discovery-Scripps, or anything else that has been falsely reported.” The Gaines’ talent agent, Bill Stankey, did not reply to numerous requests for comment.
Scripps has been spending on new programming as the deal heads toward conclusion. When the company announced quarterly earnings in early November, it attributed a 5.7 percent decrease in profit at its U.S. networks to an “increase in programming and marketing costs.” Still, ratings were down 7 percent at HGTV—and the same amount at the Scripps-owned Food Network—for women ages 25 to 54 during the mid-year period without new episodes of Fixer Upper, though HGTV was still the top ad-supported cable network for women that age.
The Gaineses are particularly appealing to programmers, given the challenging world of “linear”—i.e., traditional—cable TV. Fixer Upper’s Season 4 finale attracted more than 5 million viewers, making it the second-most-watched cable broadcast in the second quarter of 2017—behind only The Walking Dead.
They’ve even proven they can do the all but impossible in 2017: sell print. During publisher Meredith Corporation’s earnings call in October, president Tom Harty touted the success of Chip and Joanna’s magazine, The Magnolia Journal, following its 2016 debut. But company executives also had to answer a Wall Street analyst’s question about whether the success would last if the Gaineses were no longer appearing on TV.
Meredith’s C.E.O., Stephen Lacy, revealed the company’s similar concerns by answering with a deflection, focusing on a “compelling” TV interview Chip and Joanna had done that was related to their new book, The Magnolia Story. Seeming to indicate that he knew the Gaineses were shopping another TV show that would not conflict with their Scripps deal, he added that Meredith, which owns local broadcast channels that reach 12 million households, was “looking for opportunities that don’t violate any of their other contractual agreements, but also help us expand that business.”
Yet another big player with an interest in Chip and Joanna remaining nationally prominent is Target, which is currently rolling out the couple’s “highly anticipated” new brand, Hearth & Hand with Magnolia, in 500 stores that feature a 12-foot-tall house-like structure decked out with the products.
In other words: the Gaineses might feel the pressure not to dive too deeply into “me time”—even if Chip and Joanna did head to Italy in mid-November, delivering an Instagram shot of themselves smiling in matching Target-red helmets on matching red Vespas.
These are heady times for proven cable-TV lifestyle personalities. This past summer, Bobby Flay appeared to quit Iron Chef, broadcast by Scripps’ Food Network, in spectacular fashion—by wearing a T-shirt that said “This is my last Iron Chef battle ever” during a taping of Iron Chef Showdown. After I reported on the incident, but before the show aired, Flay issued a statement saying the shirt had caused “confusion.” (Crisis-communications firm Derris and Co, which has worked to burnish Food Network since the Paula Deen racial-slur crisis of 2013, crafted the response.) Carefully worded to underscore his love for Food Network without actually committing to anything, Flay’s reaction indicated he’d maybe, possibly, appear on Iron Chef again, “whenever my schedule allows.”
When the episode premiered on November 8, Scripps’ continuing efforts to disappear the troubles with its longtime star were evident. Flay’s T-shirt was blacked out, and any references that host Alton Brown might have made to it were edited away. I’ve heard some Food Network talent wondering whether after the takeover, Discovery might sign more generous deals in order to keep them aboard. Perhaps Chip and Joanna are also waiting.
But interestingly, those not in line to receive rich payouts if the Discovery sale closes seem less eager for it to happen. “Scripps is a nice, safe place to work,” a staffer at the Food Network’s headquarters at Chelsea Market in Manhattan told me. “Discovery doesn’t have that reputation.”
Over the past few months, Food Network’s New York employees have been told by their supervisors to spend more time at their desks and less time out of the office, the staffer said—in order to make the office look as fully staffed and busy as possible, in case visitors from Discovery’s integration team show up unannounced. Discovery has also said that it hopes to save $350 million in expenses over two years by combining the companies; since Discovery is headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, there is fear that the entire Food Network operation, headquartered in Manhattan since its earliest days, will be axed and moved to a place with a far less vibrant food culture.
Perhaps the move out of the costly metropolitan area will free up funds for Discovery to convince Chip and Joanna to start fixing things up again.