When Chris Wallace’s talk show returns today on HBO Max, there won’t be many changes from its previous incarnation: Sitting on a spartan set with a black backdrop, he interviews celebrities, politicians, authors and other boldfaced names. He even sings, a bit, with Shania Twain.
The biggest change is that it is not on CNN+. Back in March, Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace? was one of the ill-fated subscription streaming service’s signature shows, only to disappear when the venture was shut down by CNN’s new corporate parent Warner Bros. Discovery.
Each Friday, three interviews will drop on HBO Max, with the best highlights featured on CNN on Sundays at 7 p.m. ET — an unusual arrangement in the world of streaming.
In a Deadline interview along with his executive producer, Javier De Diego, Wallace acknowledged that, “it was a bumpy road to get from here to there, but we feel very lucky.” He said that HBO Max, with its 75 million subscribers, actually is proving to be beneficial in booking guests, as opposed to CNN+, which “you kind of at that point early on had to explain to people what it was.”
In addition to Twain, the initial lineup of guests include Alex Rodriguez, Henry Winkler, James Patterson, Tyler Perry and — in his first interview since retirement — former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
Wallace said that the show hasn’t veered from its intent — longer, free-flowing interviews that are about 30 minutes in length. Once a fixture on TV with the likes of Larry King and Charlie Rose, such an interview format has all but disappeared from TV, with podcasts filling the void.
On his Fox News Sunday show, a 10- or 12- minute interview would be considered long by TV standards, Wallace said, and “you spend as much time thinking about what you are not going to get to as what you are. So you really can’t fool around. You got to … make news and, basically to use a sports analogy, throw fastballs, one after another. And this isn’t that. This is a conversation, and an extended conversation, for around 30 minutes — some a little longer, some a little short.”
Wallace’s departure last December after a long tenure at Fox News came as a surprise and, in the buildup to the launch of CNN+, was viewed as one of then-CNN president Jeff Zucker‘s biggest coups in landing established personalities for the new streaming service. Wallace said that when he talked to Zucker in November of last year, “he said, ‘What do you want do over here?’ And my pitch was Charlie Rose meets Larry King, and one of the reasons I said it is, first of all, I thought it would be fun to do. Secondly, I also was aware of the fact that there was a huge vacuum and something that did exist no longer does. I must say Jeff jumped at it right away.”
The first incarnation of Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace? featured interviews with figures such as William McRaven, Jen Psaki and Billy Crystal, with some of the sit-downs, like that of Bob Iger, making news.
But all that came to halt with the announcement on April 21 that CNN+’s days were numbered. Wallace said incoming CNN CEO Chris Licht took him to breakfast two days before and informed him of the plans.
“I was shocked and obviously disturbed because we had spent three months putting this together, putting a great team together, building I think a really interesting show … building a bank, and suddenly the rug was pulled out from under us,” Wallace said.
He said that he already knew Licht, from when he was executive producer of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and the new CNN boss assured him “very quickly” that “he liked my work and that he wanted to continue to do business.”
In May, the announcement was made that the show would live on HBO Max and CNN.
“We were able to get the team back together,” De Diego said, with the same bookers and producers returning. Others at CNN+ went on to other jobs, Wallace noted, but “we did not lose a single person. In fact, we added several as we are in this new incarnation.”
De Diego, who has been with CNN for 15 years, said that “the exciting part of this is the fact that we are on the two different platforms and are kind of being able to be groundbreakers, if you will, of this new experiment.” He said that they were able to tape interviews with about 15 guests during the months of July and August, banking them for the new schedule, while they already have a few names on the calendar for the second season.
Wallace said that Licht and HBO’s Casey Bloys have been “tremendously supportive.” He also said that he was gratified that Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace? would get the “hero” position at the top of the HBO Max homepage, right where House of the Dragon was.
He said that he didn’t necessarily see the show as in a competition for guests like broadcast network morning shows and, while Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace? will be featuring celebrities as they promote their latest projects, the show’s format will allow for more in-depth conversations.
Twain, for instance, talked about her experience with Lyme disease and losing her voice, as well as her marital difficulties. Rodriguez talks about his suspension from baseball for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
It’s also a bit of a departure from what viewers have been accustomed to from Wallace, who has moderated presidential debates and, as anchor of Fox News Sunday, was known for his no-nonsense line of questioning and follow-ups of lawmakers of both parties. This time, he’s in different territory, as was evident in the interview with A-Rod.
Wallace at one point asked him to address a more tabloid-y topic: Jennifer Lopez. “Honestly, does it bother you that within a few days after you broke up that she was back to seeing Ben Affleck and that she ended up getting married to him, not you?”
“First of all, I am glad I am not going to ever be a presidential candidate, because you would hammer me,” Rodriguez replied, before simply wishing Lopez and her children “the very best.”
Wallace insisted that the celebrity interview isn’t all that different from a political figure. He interviewed entertainment figures like Morgan Freeman and Kim Basinger when he was at ABC News and appeared on the newsmagazine Primetime, in addition to co-hosting NBC’s Today in the 1980s.
“Asking a tough question is always a little bit difficult, but we don’t have subpoena powers — they have agreed to come on,” Wallace said. “…While I want it to be a good conversation, on the other hand, if there is something that is out there, like A-Rod and Jennifer Lopez, which I know the audience kind of wants to hear what his answer is, even if it turns out to be something of a non-answer, I am going to ask him.”
He added, “The point of the show is to have a conversation and for people to feel that it’s a safe place, but a safe place doesn’t mean that we are going to ignore something that is in the news.”
Still, even though celebrities might have their own sets of handlers and advisers, “I have found there is a level of candor, there is a level of getting real, that I didn’t generally experience covering interviewers and politicians.”
The one person who Wallace brought over from Fox News was his researcher, Lori Crim, with the demands of preparing for interview perhaps even greater because of the extended time.
“Because I have the luxury of time, it can go for 30 or 40 minutes, I don’t have to stick to a very disciplined blueprint,” he said. “If we’re having a conversation and they say something interesting, I can follow up on it.”
De Diego said that they have a producer designated to handle the CNN show, as they will “come together and figure out” the order of guests for the Sunday show, as well as what the best parts of the interview to highlight.
Wallace continues to appear on CNN, offering analysis during events such as the January 6th Committee hearings and the upcoming midterms Election Night coverage.
Licht is making a number of changes throughout the CNN schedule, but Wallace pushes back against the suggestion that he’d do another Sunday morning show again.
“Oh God, no,” he said, adding that he already has spent 18 years doing a Sunday show and on the political beat. “And at this point in my career, I wanted to try something different. And I always had this idea in mind, even before I got hired by CNN to do it, was to do this kind of extended interview — conversation, less formal, without the constraints, across the whole spectrum of my interests.”
He added: “I’m on HBO Max, I’m on CNN in primetime. All of my appetite for television is satisfied.”