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    Television
    Tuesday, February 07, 2023

    Despite turmoil at CNN, Chris Wallace is still 'Talking'

    When Warner Bros. Discovery decided to pull the plug on CNN's streaming service CNN+ just a few weeks after its launch, there was a lot of carnage around the network. Shows were scuttled and layoffs mounted.

    But the service's highest-profile program survived. "Who's Talking to Chris Wallace?" — where the veteran journalist and ex-Fox News anchor sits down for lengthy conversations with a wide range of subjects — immediately found a home on the parent company's streaming service HBO Max.

    The Washington, D.C.-based Wallace, 75, occasionally made news with his sit-downs, such as when former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol ripped NFL TV analyst Tony Romo for his recent performance in the broadcast booth (Ebersol later publicly apologized).

    A new season of "Who's Talking..." is streaming now on HBO Max, with highlights airing Sundays at 7 p.m. on CNN, with a roster of guests that includes "Avatar: The Way of Water" director James Cameron, "Succession" co-star Brian Cox, author Ina Garten and Fox Sports analyst Terry Bradshaw.

    Q: Whenever you ask a TV journalist what their dream job is, this is the format they imagine. But it was gone for a while until "Who's Talking to Chris Wallace?" came on.

    A: CNN had not done this kind of thing since Larry King. It was kind of astonishing to me because in-depth conversations have been a mainstay through the history of television from Mike Wallace to David Susskind to Larry King and Charlie Rose. It was really absent in the TV landscape.

    Q: Is it different doing it for streaming, aside from how your guests can swear?

    A: You have to take into account with streaming the fact that it's not just there for an hour as it is in cable. You can find it days later, weeks later, months later. So you've got to find stuff that has staying power, which is to say that you want guests and subjects that you think people are not only going to watch today but might want to watch a week or two weeks from now. I think you probably will see fewer straight news people this season because they don't have the same shelf life.

    Q: You grew up in a world of TV ratings. Does management tell you much about how the streaming numbers are?

    A: Well, in terms of the cable ratings, we really have begun to find an audience. Three of the last five weeks of original shows at 7 (Eastern) on Sunday nights, we finished first in the demo. We beat Fox, we beat MSNBC. So that's encouraging. In terms of streaming, basically what we hear is we're not competitive with "House of the Dragon" or "The White Lotus," which I wouldn't expect. But we certainly hold our own against comparable nonfiction programming like Bill Maher or John Oliver, or a "Stanley Tucci Searching for Italy" series. We're doing fine. They are very pleased.

    Q: Your entry into CNN had to be a little unsettling. Former CNN chief Jeff Zucker personally wooed you and then he was gone, replaced by Chris Licht. How concerned were you about all this when you saw what was happening to the company after you arrived?

    A: It was two weeks (in) and this email comes out that Jeff is leaving. I didn't know Jeff all that well, but he was the guy that hired me, so I didn't think that was great news. And I admired Jeff just from his reputation and his long history. Much more devastating in a structural sense was when we worked so hard for so long for three months to develop the CNN+ show, and to tape about 18 shows, and that suddenly went crashing down. I had a contract. I knew they were going to find work for me.

    My main concern was the staff. A bunch of people had come over either from secure jobs at CNN or from other places, other networks, and (were) taking a chance on me and this venture and CNN+. So job one was let's try to protect everybody. Chris Licht met with me very early on and made it clear that he believed in the show, he liked the show, and he was going to find a place for the show. Was it unsettling? Absolutely. But I can't say that I really felt I was being cast adrift, or that we weren't going to find a landing spot.

    Q: CNN still has to come up with a plan for prime time. Is there any discussion of you having a role?

    A: I have no interest in it. I am loving what I'm doing, and I came over to do it. I was aware obviously when I came over that there was an opening at 9 o'clock in prime time, and I made it clear to Jeff Zucker that I wasn't interested in it. I made it clear to Chris Licht I wasn't interested in it. I'll make it clear to you I'm not interested in it. I've got a pretty busy job and I'm really loving what I'm doing.

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