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 occasionally made news with his sitdowns, 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…” starts streaming Friday on HBO Max, with highlights airing Sundays at 4 p.m. Pacific 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.

Wallace, 75, talked about the upcoming season, his transition to CNN and the anxiety he experienced in the 1980s, when Barbara Walters tried to pair up with his legendary father, Mike Wallace.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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?

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,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.

Licht will take over the news organization in May after Discovery completes its acquisition of CNN parent WarnerMedia.

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

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.

You’ve been gone from Fox News for a year. Have you followed the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against the network over the 2020 election coverage? Do you think they’re in trouble?

No comment. It’s not my problem. I’m following it and I’ll be curious to see what happens.

Have you been asked to give a deposition in the case?

No.

Barbara Walters expressed interest in Mike Wallace in the late 1980s, much to the trepidation of Chris Wallace.
(Donna Svennevik / ABC News)

We recently lost Barbara Walters. You worked at ABC News when she was there. Your father, Mike Wallace, competed with her, and your stepfather, Bill Leonard, knew her when he was a CBS News executive. So I’m guessing you have a few stories.

Bill Leonard at a certain point became the president of CBS News. But even before that he was the vice president of CBS News and in charge of “60 Minutes.” And whenever Barbara’s contract came up he’d get a call — I don’t remember whether it was from Barbara directly or from her agent — but basically saying, “How about you and Barbara having lunch together?” And he would. Maybe the first time he got excited, but after that, as it got to the third or fourth time, he knew the game. It was basically Barbara wanting to sit down with Bill Leonard to get (ABC News President Roone Arledge) a little bit scared so he’d give her more money in her contract. And he knew the game and he enjoyed having lunch with Barbara.

I gather that Mike must have known her pretty well too.

So in 1986 my father was single and Barbara was single. And Barbara came kind of sniffing around to see whether there might be something between her and my father. And when I heard this, all I could think was, “God, it’s tough enough being Mike Wallace’s son. I really don’t want to be Barbara Walters’ stepson.”

Did they go out at all?

I don’t know if they went out at all or not, but it certainly was nothing serious. Let me put it this way — there was no chance in the world that Mike Wallace was going to be Mr. Barbara Walters. Now, you’ve got to admit that that’s a pretty good story.

In the first season of your show, you did a pretty candid interview with George Clooney. But we didn’t hear anything about you hanging out with him at his villa in Lake Como. How did the two of you become friends?

I bumped into him a few times at movie screenings and things like that, and he had just seemed to feel a connection to me, and I think it was largely because his father was a news anchor, and obviously my father was. And I had been trying to interview him, and his publicist, Stan Rosenfeld, kept saying no in a very polite way. And then Clooney came back from South Sudan with his father and he wanted to talk about the genocide going on there. I was very pleased, because I did the interview with him on “Fox News Sunday” and we got along just great. … I thought, “The guy’s sitting here talking about genocide; I don’t want to ask him about Julia Roberts.” And I think he respected that.

And a couple of weeks later we were at the White House Correspondents Dinner and he was at the next table. He came over, we started chatting, and something came up about Lake Como. And he said, “Hey, you want to come?” So I’ll never forget that was Saturday, and on Monday I wrote Stan, and I said, “George has invited me to Como this summer. Was he being polite or was he being serious?” And I sent it out, and as I did I muttered under my breath, “Oh, please be serious, please be serious.”

Chris Wallace moderates the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University.
(Associated Press)

Do you think you’ll ever moderate another presidential debate? You did one in each of the last two presidential campaign cycles that were pretty consequential.

I don’t know. It depends on the Commission on Presidential Debates.

You would say yes if asked?

Probably, sure. I certainly hope it would go better than the last one.

 

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