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On March 4, nearly a month after taking an unplanned hiatus from The Bachelor, Chris Harrison returned to TV to say that he wasn’t going anywhere. “I plan to be back and I want to be back,” the host of 19 years told Good Morning America co-anchor Michael Strahan. He said he had been seeking counsel from the community he hurt after an interview in which he excused racially offensive behavior from Rachael Kirkconnell, a contestant on the then-airing, historic season of The Bachelor, centered on the franchise’s first Black male lead, Matt James.
Given that Kirkconnell was a frontrunner, Harrison seemingly was sent out to do damage control over the contestant’s attending of a 2018 racist sorority party, but it backfired — as did his redemption effort. (Kirkconnell went on to win the season and, after a brief post-finale breakup, is now reunited with James.)
Though the pre-taped interview ran in what would seem to be friendly confines — both GMA and The Bachelor air on ABC — it got a cool response from Strahan, who told the audience moments after it aired: “His apology is his apology, but it felt like I got nothing more than a surface response. Only time will tell if there is any meaning behind his words.” The produced nature of the sit-down that Strahan publicly objected to was an approach seemingly designed to protect Harrison. The GMA host was unhappy with the substance of the interview, sources tell THR. “That interview was the nail in the coffin” for Harrison’s return, adds a source close to the production.
At the time, Harrison was talking about his return with bosses ABC and Warner Horizon, which produces and distributes the Mike Fleiss-created franchise. While there had been no public show of support for Harrison from the network or the show’s producers, the decision-makers were privately telling the face of their franchise they wanted him back and that he should remain patient, says a show insider.
But the wheels of change were already in motion. On March 12, franchise stars Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe were announced as Harrison’s replacements on season 17 of The Bachelorette, starring Katie Thurston. In a joint statement, ABC Entertainment and Warners called the pair “mentors,” as they were saving the “host” label should Harrison return, per the production source.
Days later, the Gersh-repped Harrison retained Bryan Freedman, the power attorney who had secured a sizable exit package for Gabrielle Union amid her dispute with NBC. “Chris hired Bryan when he realized they didn’t have his back,” says a show insider. “They kept saying, ‘You’re our guy and we’re going to protect you,’ but they never said a word to defend him after one messy interview in 19 years.” Harrison, Warner Horizon and ABC declined to comment.
Sources say that in the days leading up to the Bachelorette premiere, leaks in the press about Harrison’s negotiations and replacement hosts for summer spinoff Bachelor in Paradise signaled that the rift between the star and producers became untenable. “Both sides had the intention of Chris returning, and he was putting in the work in order to make that happen. And then it suddenly took a turn. He was iced out,” this show insider says. Harrison instead walked away with a settlement — Deadline reported on June 9 a “mid-range eight-figure payoff,” but a source says that number is inflated, although the actual amount was still sizable.
Jeremiah Reynolds, an entertainment litigator who represented Sharon Osbourne in her exit from CBS’ The Talk, doubts the producers and network had any grounds to fire him, even assuming his deal contained a morals clause. “I can’t imagine any contract currently drafted that would allow his termination over his conduct,” says Reynolds, noting that Harrison’s comments “weren’t beyond the pale,” but merely insensitive. Reynolds suspects that ABC and Warners didn’t want to test whether they could convince a judge otherwise and opted instead to buy Harrison out, likely on the condition of signing an NDA and non-disparagement agreement.
“Somebody like Chris would probably want consideration for that,” Reynolds says. “There’s a lot of value to knowing what goes on on that show.” (Meanwhile, Osbourne doesn’t have an NDA and “can say whatever she wants.”)
He adds that the companies likely know they’re “on shaky ground” with matters like Osbourne’s and Harrison’s. “These aren’t situations where they’re like, ‘You’re fired and you’re not getting paid.’ They’re paying out,” Reynolds says. “Then it just becomes a question for the talent whether they want to fight in a courtroom.”
Harrison’s exit marks a new turn for the reality juggernaut following Disney-owned ABC unveiling a set of inclusion standards in the fall of 2020. The goals, which came after major backlash against the Bachelor franchise over its diversity woes, are meant to hold accountable programs from Disney TV as well as third-party studios. As the fallout from Harrison’s interview continued to snowball, stars from Bachelor Nation spoke out in droves to demand that ABC and Warners replace Harrison for the near future.
Thurston, who was already locked in as the franchise’s next star and readying to go into production, had tweeted: “I stand with other alumni who have expressed that learning & growth require time. I hope that Chris Harrison continues to take more time to step away while sincerely educating himself & dedicating himself to the work.” Thurston also expressed those views behind the scenes, per the production source.
Reynolds suspects those concerns were weighed against Harrison’s perceived value to the franchise, and they chose to sever ties instead of fighting the public backlash. “My take is they felt the show likely wouldn’t be impacted or could actually improve with new hosts,” he says. “Networks and studios tend to be particularly sensitive and susceptible to social media criticism. Unless a particular host drives a lot of ratings and value to the show, the safer course for them oftentimes is to part ways.”
A Hollywood strategic communications expert, who didn’t want to be identified because of ongoing work with ABC/Disney, says getting rid of Harrison seems like a superficial PR move: “Making a cosmetic change like this is the easiest thing in the world and no doubt it seems like a surefire win to the suits at ABC and Warner Bros., but replacing the host while leaving the same crowd of producers in charge does absolutely nothing to address the underlying systemic issues on the show. Shifting hosts is, appropriately enough, only a skin-deep transformation.”
Replacing Harrison with Bristowe and Adams was also a less expensive solution for producers. Though they were labeled as “co-hosts” onscreen, the duo are credited as “special guests.” Their negotiated rate, per an insider, is a far cry from Harrison’s millions per year.
The co-hosts said they took on a larger role than expected in the season, which was filmed in a bubble in New Mexico, and were involved in creative conversations on The Bachelorette. “We didn’t know what our roles were going to be and how much involvement we were going to have. But since day one, they said, ‘You’re a part of this,’” Adams recently told THR. The pair accounted for 7.6 percent of airtime during the two-hour premiere, per featured screen time tracker Instagram account @BachelorData, topping Harrison’s recent premiere high of 6.7 percent on James’ cycle.
The linear night-of ratings for the first two episodes saw double-digit declines from previous seasons (on par with most series drops), and are the lowest-rated back-to-back episodes in franchise history. But Thurston’s premiere ended up first among the day’s broadcast shows among adults 18-49, and the show is likely to keep its position among the summer’s top series in the key ad demographic. ABC and Warners are said to be taking a wait-and-see approach to whether they will bring the duo back for the 18th season of The Bachelorette with star Michelle Young, which airs in the fall.
As broadcast continues to face a ratings inflection point, streamers are jumping onto the reality dating genre bandwagon (see Netflix’s breakout hit Love Is Blind). And Harrison, it seems, will be ready to field any calls. “I’ve had a truly incredible run as host of The Bachelor franchise and now I’m excited to start a new chapter,” he said when his departure was official. “I’m so grateful to Bachelor Nation for all of the memories we’ve made together. While my two-decade journey is wrapping up, the friendships I’ve made will last a lifetime.”
The overtly cheery tone could indicate Reynolds’ suspicion of a non-disparagement agreement is on point. Especially as, when commenting on his exit, Warners and ABC had also offered a friendly joint statement: “We are thankful for his many contributions over the past 20 years and wish him all the best on his new journey.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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