makes a bad joke, and Joanna rolls her eyes; Chip laughs about how bad his joke is.”
For Weidhorn, the discovery was akin to a light-bulb moment.
“I realized Chip and Joanna are people,” Weidhorn said. “I like their relationship. We want to be able to tell their story, not just the story of a house.”
The final cut of the pilot allowed for plenty of their natural banter — and the rest is cable history.
“Fixer Upper” became a mansion-size hit, and the Gaineses these days are celebrities with an empire consisting of a sprawling Waco shopping complex, vacation rentals, restaurants, paint and decor lines, a Target home collection and a quarterly magazine. But after five seasons, “Fixer Upper” has ended — the final new episode was shown this month.
For HGTV, the couple's departure represents a major loss. But the Gaineses' success provided the network with a formula for filling the ratings sinkhole that they'll leave behind: Make shows about charismatic twosomes from underexplored parts of the country.
HGTV is applying the formula vigorously: Nineteen of its current series are top-lined by duos, with more on the way. Some of the emerging shows star siblings (“Restored by the Fords”) or parent-child teams (“Good Bones”), but most center on couples.
“You can’t make another Chip and Jo,” said Weidhorn, who still works with HGTV, now as the head of her own unscriptedcontent production company, 547 Barnard. “They had their own lifestyle, their own world. But you can set out to find duos who make viewers say, ‘Relationship goals!’ or ‘Hey, I talk to my brother like that.’ Viewers like to see their own relationships reflected in the talent.”
Many of those viewers are enjoying the network in twos.
“The fact is, our viewers are duos themselves,” said Kathleen Finch, chief lifestyle brands officer for Discovery Inc., which owns HGTV. “What we hear is, ‘My husband and I sit on the couch together and watch.”’
HGTV is so focused on Gone from HGTV but not forgotten: Chip and Joanna Gaines of the series “Fixer Upper”
finding talent that reflects that audience, it sometimes lets the couch couples cross through the screen. Three years ago, Dave and Chenoa Rivera — who left their tourism and medical-sales jobs to start renovating properties in Paradise, California — were two of the viewers Finch describes.
“We had been watching ‘Flip or Flop,’ and I was like, ‘Hey, we do this,”’ Chenoa Rivera said.
She sent HGTV’s casting inbox an email that described the renovation projects she and Dave Rivera collaborate on and included their family Christmas photo. A year later, she heard from a producer. The Riveras shot a pilot and eventually got a series green light. Their show, “Rustic Rehab,” set to premiere April 26, paints them as savvy and down-to-earth — can-do hustlers in a woodsy corner of California.
Conceptually, “Rehab” follows the blueprint of “Flip or Flop,” the franchise that has become HGTV’s go-to format for breaking couple talent. Network executives are especially excited about two in particular: “Flip or Flop Vegas,” with mixedmartial-arts fighter Bristol Marunde and his Realtor wife, Aubrey; and “Flip or Flop Nashville,” with former NFL player DeRon Jenkins and Page Turner, a real-estate broker.
Then there are the original “Flip or Flop” stars: Christina and Tarek El Moussa, who recently shot their first episodes since 2016 for a new season that will start May 31. The El Moussas drew “throughthe-roof, gangbusters”
numbers for HGTV, according to Finch. Their return to the network after their divorce will probably do even better.
Of course, HGTV stars need more than chemistry and interesting personal lives: They have to actually know their way around a hammer — or at least look and sound as if they do on television.
Which leads to hires such as Leanne and Steve Ford of “Restored by the Fords.” The mellow, Pittsburgh-based siblings have been at their respective trades for years — hers in design, his in construction — and their signature style skews more modern and minimal than the typical HGTV aesthetic.
“Restored by the Fords” premiered in January and has averaged nearly 1.7 million viewers per episode (HGTV’s best-rated new program this year among viewers ages 25 to 54). So “Fords” is off to a good start, and its stars’ profiles are on the rise.
“Our Instagrams are booming,” Leanne Ford said.
On "Home Town," co-host Erin Napier and her husband, Ben, renovate homes in Laurel, Mississippi, where they grew up. In its second season, “Home Town” was watched by an average of 1.5 million viewers per episode, and the fame that has followed has made Laurel feel even smaller to Erin Napier.
“I am an introvert,” she said. “I get anxious when people who don’t know me want to talk at the grocery store.”
Ben Napier, a woodworker, was nearby with
their 3-month-old daughter, Helen.
“People are spending their spring breaks in Laurel,” he said. “If you’d told me that 10 years ago, I’d have laughed.” (He might have taken a lesson from the trajectory of the Gaineses, who have brought more tourists to Waco — the vacation rentals they own sometimes sell out up to a year in advance.)
In Laurel, “Home Town” fans shop for goods inspired by the show at the Napiers’ Front Street boutique, Laurel Mercantile Co., and cruise past the couple’s 1920s Craftsman home.
“I was planting flowers on my front porch earlier today,” Erin Napier said. “About 15 tourists drove by and filmed me doing it.”
Such anecdotes hint at why HGTV’s duos have become so popular — and crucial to the network’s success. They blur the line between fame and regular life, talking on television the way you imagine they would if you invited them to dinner.
But Erin Napier suspects there’s something more subtle drawing people to her show and her street. “Home Town” — like many HGTV shows — celebrates common experiences that other types of TV ignore or mock: married life, modest budgets, settling down in the place where you grew up.
“When I was a teenager, I thought I was going to go work in publishing in New York,” she said. “But once I left Laurel, I realized how special it was. It didn’t matter that it was small. I thought, if the opportunity I want isn’t there — well, I’ll just make it.”