Rabbit Hole: Who's Watching Chris Wallace?
Chris Wallace was CNN's big bet for the now-defunct CNN+. Is the investment paying off?
“Rabbit Hole” is a single-topic deep dive column that comes out twice per month for paid subscribers. The usual Fourth Watch newsletter returns on Sunday.
Chris Wallace was talking about the height of a comic book character. “Wolverine is 5’5’’, you are 6’2’’, so how on Earth did you get cast for this role?” Wallace, who just two years and 3 months ago was hosting a presidential debate between Trump and Biden, asked the actor Hugh Jackman about his role as Wolverine. (The answer — Jackman pretended to be shorter in the first movie and then they abandoned the whole premise.)
This was a moment from Sunday night’s second season premiere of “Who’s Talking To Chris Wallace,” a CNN program which airs at 7pmET each weekend. Chris Wallace spent 18 years hosting Fox News Sunday. Now he’s doing this. What’s behind this easy listening transformation of a veteran political journalist?
I’ve done some digging into how we ended up at this place — from the content, to the strategy, to the (quite poor) ratings… and what may happen next.
Wallace is a 75-year-old legend in the news business—someone who has been as moderator of Meet the Press, a chief White House correspondent for NBC, and a longtime host and reporter for ABC, all before he even got to Fox News in 2003. His longtime Sunday morning broadcast perch was where he would announce in December 2021 his exit from the network, and by that night, CNN announced he was joining the soon-to-launch streaming service, CNN+. He received a hefty paycheck to join the streamer, with reports of more than $6 million a year (and some reports as high as $10 million a year).
Of course, if you read thenewsletter, you likely know what happened next. Just weeks after it launched, CNN+ was completely shuttered by the new management at the network and boss Chris Licht, despite the hundreds of millions invested in it by the prior Jeff Zucker regime. What did that mean for Wallace? He was loosely involved in election coverage and other political events on the channel. And his show got a new streaming home on the new corporate boss’ HBO Max, while a compilation of that week’s episodes was aired in the revamped Sunday night lineup.
Late last year “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace” was renewed for a second 10-episode season. (A note on the title — I’ve seen it written with a question mark, in CNN’s promotional material, and without one, on the screen during the show, so I’m going without it.)
It certainly didn’t get renewed because it was a big draw for CNN’s viewers. The ratings are not strong. Wallace’s first season averaged 81,000 in the important 25-54-year-old demographic, with just 437,000 total viewers. CNN Newsroom, which aired in that slot before Wallace took over in late September, averaged 124,000 in the demo and 585,000 total viewers in 2022. The previous year, those numbers were even higher. During the same time period Wallace was on the air last year, Fox News’ Trey Gowdy had 103,000 demo viewers and 1,358,000 total viewers. Wallace’s show did beat MSNBC’s Alicia Menendez in both categories, and occasionally topped Fox in the demo last year.
Sunday night’s second season premiere averaged just 58,000 demo viewers and 462,000 total viewers (with Fox far ahead again) at 7pmET. CNN’s shows before and after it performed better. And that timeslot is worth mentioning — pre-primetime, just 4pmET on the West Coast, and notably, the show does not repeat later in the evening a single time. It’s just sort of thrown out there…and not particularly consumed on the linear channel.
But ratings aren’t the only reason shows are produced — and based on comments from Licht since he joined the network, they aren’t necessarily the main priority at CNN in particular. So if the content is strong, ratings matter less. But while it’s mainly been an odd selection of interviews for the hard news vet, it didn’t start that way. One of the first interviews Wallace conducted was with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the decorated but controversial journalist behind The 1619 Project, and their contentious but substantive exchanges made news. When Wallace sits down with political and more newsworthy cultural figures in the longform interview setting, like AOC in a November episode, some interesting moments come out.
But those sorts of interviews now are few and far between. One of the more representative sitdowns was December’s interview with singer Dionne Warwick. The interview with the 82-year-old was awkward — like a light talk show from another era. In one moment, Wallace gently coaxes Warwick to sing a few lines by singing some himself, later declaring, “You and I just did a duet!”
These interviews only occasionally seem to generate headlines, even with the more fluffy entertainment sites. The only one who consistently writes up these mostly newsless softball interviews is Tommy Christopher at Mediaite, who appears to have an obsession with Wallace or the show.
On one level, the failure to make “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace” a successful traditional television show, at least so far, is not really Wallace’s fault. The program was conceived as the centerpiece of a streaming service, where building a library of evergreen content was surely part of the plan. Would it be odd if Chuck Todd suddenly wanted to interview Michael Caine? I guess so. But George Stephanopoulos went from “This Week” to GMA, so it’s not totally unprecedented. Still, while it seems like a waste of Wallace’s talents to focus so heavily on these airy interviews, it apparently is what the D.C. journalist wants to be doing. Last week Wallace talked to Steve Battaglio of the Los Angeles Times, and pointed to Charlie Rose and Larry King as inspirations. I’m not sure I can picture Charlie Rose singing a “duet” with Dionne Warwick though.
Streaming is of course a different beast, with different metrics for success. HBO Max doesn’t release “ratings,” like all streamers, so we don’t know how the show is doing on that platform. Wallace told the LA Times, “We’re doing fine. They are very pleased.” When asked about these numbers and other elements of this story, CNN declined to comment on the record.
In an environment where ratings don’t matter, and the metric that moves the needle is overall new subscribers to a budding streaming platform, having an archive of content that includes lengthy interviews might make sense. That was, in theory, the CNN+ conceit.
But that’s also why the arrangement feels ill-conceived from the start. It’s hard to see how this particular type of content would fit with a streaming service that was designed to be specifically engaged in news and journalism, as CNN+ purported to be at its inception. Or, why someone as inexperienced in interviewing singers and actors would be their preferred vessel for it.
At the very least, it’s clear “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace” doesn’t make sense as a Sunday night TV show highlight reel of highlight-less celebrity interviews. CNN made a big investment in the former serious broadcaster — to the tune of millions. It was a bet that was placed during the Zucker Era, and now it’s the Licht Era’s job to clean it up. Any objective observer would say CNN is not getting its money’s worth.
At this point, Wallace’s content may still have a place at HBO Max, but CNN’s TV channel doesn’t seem like a longterm home for him. Maybe he’ll continue to appear during political coverage on the network, but this version of the show belongs on HBO, or simply streaming only — if anywhere. The program may have gotten “renewed” for a new “season,” but that’s another way of waiting out the contract Wallace is already getting paid from, whether he is sidelined entirely or not.
Which brings us back to Sunday night. The interviewees on this premiere were Jackman and Avatar director James Cameron. These aren’t uninteresting figures, and the exchanges were pleasant and casual. But it was jarring to see Wallace talk about Cameron’s dreams and paintings as a teenager, or Jackman’s singing and dancing. Even an exchange about Jackman’s skin cancer was stilted, rather than emotional, as Wallace made it as much about his own experience as Jackman’s.
So… who’s talking to Chris Wallace next week? Apparently it’s Andy Cohen and Ina Garten. I guess the better question is — who cares?