Chip and Joanna Gaines have made television work on their terms ever since the dynamic design duo first arrived on HGTV with their Magnolia home design and lifestyle brand in 2013.
Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET, the pair reach an Oprah Winfrey-level summit with the launch of their Magnolia-branded linear cable channel with Discovery.
Magnolia arrives as a rebrand of Discovery’s existing DIY network. But even as a rebrand, a linear TV channel launch is a rare event in media these days. Magnolia Network programming first appeared last year as a brand imprint on the Discovery Plus streaming platform. Having the linear channel launch come nearly a year later turned out to be the perfect cadence for the couple, who steer their business empire and their lives from Waco, Tex.
The couple shocked HGTV and the rest of the TV world in 2017 when they opted to take a break from their red-hot home renovation series “Fixer Upper.” In a wide-ranging conversation with Variety, the pair discusses why the timing was right for them to come back to TV, what it took in a deal with Discovery chief David Zaslav to make Magnolia Network happen, and how they hope to inspire viewers to “live the life that you were meant to live,” as Chip explained with plain-spoken eloquence.
In this era of streaming and TV on demand, why is it important that Magnolia has a linear channel presence?
Joanna Gaines: We love to be where the people are. So obviously, streaming — that’s happening. Everything shifted last year from going to streaming first, and then linear. It all worked out. Now that we look back, we’re like, that’s exactly how it needed to work out. The fact that we got the streaming platform up and running. But there’s still tens of millions of people still on the linear side. And we think a lot of our viewers are still there. So we want to meet them there. We also just believe in the power of getting around the television as a family watching the same show together. I think right now a lot of people are on their own devices watching their own shows. It kind of reminds me of six years ago when we said yes to [creating Magnolia Journal quarterly] magazine. That was something we were dreaming about. Everyone was saying it’s all going to digital, print is dying. We believe in that idea of sitting in your favorite chair with your magazine for an hour doing that kind of back-to-basics thing. And I think the same goes with television. It’s weird to think of it as nostalgic, but being around the television set feels like back to the basics all over again. So for us, we feel fortunate to be able to have it on the streaming side, but also the linear side so that we can have as many people that want to watch it be able to watch it.
Chip Gaines: Nobody knows the future. But we’re here to definitively announce that television is not dead yet.
What’s it been like for you two to evolve from being TV personalities to curating an entire network of content under the Magnolia banner?
CG: We’re thrilled about it. That’s been the greatest joy in all this — finding new talent that maybe the world hadn’t heard of yet and reintroducing talent that the world had known, like [chef] Andrew Zimmern, who’s become a dear friend of ours. To see him represent our network and to see some of the new, up-and-coming talent blossoming right in front of our eyes, it’s been really the joy of lifetime. That’s really the reason that Jo and I were so interested in this opportunity when [Discovery chief] David Zaslav came to Waco years ago and presented us with the possibility of potentially rebranding a network under the Magnolia umbrella. Our eyes were just like — we were overwhelmed with the possibility of introducing the world to people and stories that we just believed were dying to be told. As we see it starting to come to fruition, it’s the honor of a lifetime.
How do you handle the development process and curating other content for Magnolia Network?
JG: We don’t do it the typical way. We’re not the network that says, “Send in your casting tapes.” For us, it’s been this really authentic way of finding talent. It’s either talent that we’re just completely enamored with as far as what they do, what they’re passionate about. It’s been a little harder, honestly, because it takes a lot of time on the phone and hours of talking them into even wanting to do television. I’d say most of our talent didn’t come to us and say, “I want to do a show.” We came to them and said, “Can we highlight what you’re doing? It’s so amazing and inspiring.”
CG: Most of our day is spent coaxing people into trusting that, yes, television is going to be wonderful for them and their families and their futures.
What do you look for in your on-air talent? What makes someone right for Magnolia Network?
JG: I think one of the things we’ve seen is that thread of vulnerability. People have to say, “I’m willing to put myself out there. I don’t even know how to be on TV.” We’re like, “Hey, it doesn’t matter. Forget the cameras are there, we just want to highlight what you are doing authentically in your life.” And so I think what you see with all of our talent is them putting themselves out there in a very vulnerable and beautiful way. And I think when you do that, and the guard is down, there’s no act, there’s no “Hey, this is your script.” It truly is the life that they’re living. You can’t help but be inspired. You can’t help but go “What is it that I need to be doing?” We’ve had so many people write us letters, and even connect with us on social media just saying, “After watching the show, I’ve been really inspired to go do the thing that I was meant to do.” So it’s amazing to see the trickle effect of when people put themselves out there how inspires others to do the same.
CG: So, lots of different hats. Today half the meetings we have are about retail side and the e-comm and the curation of that, and then the other half is about network and talent. So it really does just continue to stretch our brains and challenge us. And I think that’s why we love coming to work every day. We’re learning new things, trying our hardest and hopefully people are being inspired by it.
How do you coordinate all the activities in your world? Is social media something that ties it all together?
JG: It’s kind of amazing how the [Magnolia Journal quarterly] magazine has been really pivotal. The magazine has always been our compass. It’s like the theme of that season. And then with that theme, if it’s, you know, delight, or whatever that is, then that’s how I choose the product for that season. It’s funny how it trickles down to everything. Stories we’re telling in the magazine could be potential stories we tell on the network. We want people to feel that not only in the magazine but on the network, on social, on the blog, it really does feel like there’s this beautiful through line, where we’re not just talking about 100 different things. We’re really talking about the seasonal moments of being present in the here in the now and celebrating that.
Why do you think that is?
CG: I wonder if people are struggling with these ideas. I wonder if people who are raising a family feel this way about raising a family. When Jo speaks about it, people show up in droves. It’s been an honor to watch people connect with Jo and the family and the life that we live here in Waco, Texas. It’s been incredible.
How do you decide when to say yes and when to say no to opportunities for those who want to partner with you and the Magnolia brand?
JG: We say “no” a lot more than we say “yes.”
CG: Early on, “yes” was so fun to say but it always cost you something, for us and our family. Jo and I are passionate about the fact that we’re going to make it through this experience, and obviously these circumstances are difficult at times on a marriage, on a family. Jo and I are real particular about the order of our universe. Our family and our marriage comes first, and everything else kind of finds the second and third points in the ecosystem. For Jo and I, it’s fascinating to say “no” to something that really is hard to say “no” to in some cases, but then we see the fruit either in our marriage or in our family, our community here in Waco, Texas. I mean, these things are not taglines to us. This is sincerely just what we are.
JG: From the very beginning, even when we had no clue what was about to happen with our show, people were like, “Can you do it in other cities?” We’re like, “no.” We can’t. We have a business here that we’re operating. We can’t leave. And then these partnerships started coming along. It was like, “You got to come to us, right?” We’ve got kids, and we’ve got a business. And so all our partnerships come here, everything’s designed and done here in Waco, Texas. And then, even with saying “no” to the fifth season of “Fixer Upper,” it was just like, “This is kind of wearing on us.” For us, every decision is based around how is this going to affect our time with our kids and our time with each other. And starting that really early on has helped be our guide.
What made Discovery a fit for you?
JG: When David Zaslav came here to talk to us and ask us, “What do you want?” That he would leave at 3 a.m. to get on a flight to come visit us and say “What works for you and your family and your business?”
CG: He’s given us the creative control, which is what made us get to this really great place. The more we’ve gotten to know him, he really does represent the guy next door. He’s powerful, he’s energetic, he’s incredible. He’s brilliant, all the things that you would hope that he would be, but by the same token, he’s so relatable. And he’s quick to roll up his sleeves when things get complicated and god knows after years of trying to put this thing together — the cart kept switching places between the horse and the cart. Discovery as a whole has really proven to be a great partner for us. And we are so excited about the [pending WarnerMedia] merger because I think it’s just going to give all the ships the ability to rise as the tide rises with it. I think if anybody can do it, David Zaslav can. We are sincerely and legitimately his biggest cheerleaders.
JG: [Magnolia Network chief] Allison Page’s experience in the world of unscripted television is unparalleled and we knew immediately that she was the perfect choice — the only choice, really — to collaborate and lead this venture with us. We are grateful to call her a trusted partner. But more importantly — our friend.
As I understand, your business relationship with Discovery gives you an unusual degree of control and equity in the media venture. What were the conditions that were important to you?
JG: Discovery was the only option where we didn’t have to actually sign on the dotted line to have a show, or two, which was really telling. David had listened to us enough to know that going in, maybe it’s not being on television that’s the answer. It was [Discovery] going with their gut and leading in that way. The fact that the contract had zero demands for us to do any show, or anything. He trusted us and where we would go with it. And that’s given us the ability to just really feel it out and see what works best for us every season. If a “Fixer” works best, great, but if it doesn’t in this season, there’s no strings attached. That feels like we can really create something special.
Can you define the Magnolia brand? What is that makes a show, a personality or a subject matter right for your air?
CG: We want you to come spend your time with us and leave refreshed, encouraged and really, sincerely feeling like that was time well spent. I learned something. I engaged in a way that I was inspired. I was encouraged. And those are our passions; we want to give that opportunity to anybody who’s willing to spend the time with us. We want that investment to pay dividends…What we do is not “Keeping up With the Joneses.” We’re not trying to create this opportunity for you to compare your lives to our lives. What we’re hoping to do is to light a fire so that you can go out and create the life that you were meant to live. And that’s really, really the bottom line for us.
Where do you see your businesses heading in 2022?
CG: We’re so excited, we’ve got literally a countdown clock that leads us to the exact second. We hope that when that channel conversion happens that it’s a beautiful spark in the universe that really inspires millions of people. We hope that 2022 is an opportunity for all of us to kind of break out of what has felt like a pretty stagnant couple of years because of circumstances beyond a lot of our control with COVID and the like. But even when you think about politics and the ecosystem as it relates to the world as a whole — we’re ready for there to be a hopeful, fresh new start. And so the fact that this happens to be happening on January 5, 2022 — we think that it’s happening for a reason and at a perfect time.
JG: What we’re hoping for this new year is that we all we stay learners, whether that be learning about the other person next to you, and widening your mind and your heart to them, or being learners just in ways that you were built to do. What are you built to do? What life are you built to live? Hopefully we can journey along with a lot of the people that are connecting with us. We don’t have any surprises or anything. It’s more just, hey, we’ve got this network off the ground. We’ve got it in streaming, we’ve got it in linear. Now let’s really build this. We’re just getting started. The sky’s the limit.