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When Chris Wallace left Fox News to join CNN a little more than a year ago, he did so in a desire to pursue new avenues. A veteran political anchor, Wallace wanted the chance to interview interesting people outside the confines of politics.
But while Wallace’s CNN+ show fell victim to the streaming platform’s short shelf life, it was rejuvenated and revamped just a few weeks later in the form of Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace? And this time, it would be much more widely available. The series would stream full interviews on HBO Max on Fridays, and a condensed one hour version weekly on CNN Sunday nights.
For the third season, debuting today, the CNN TV version will shift to Friday nights at 10 p.m., with HBO Max (soon to be Max) remaining the streaming home for the longform interviews. “The thought was it just lines up better to have it dropping Friday mornings on Max, and then on Friday evenings you can see and find the news, or what the controversial comment was, on CNN primetime,” Wallace says, adding that the two day gap didn’t really make sense given consumer consumption habits.
And while Wallace is still talking to politicians (Sen. Bernie Sanders is one of his first guests), the list of guests is a much broader spectrum of voices.
The preliminary list of guests looks pretty strong and varied: Carol Burnett, Jay Leno, Miranda Lambert. Can you explain how you approach figuring out who you want to talk to and how you try to balance out the variety of guests?
I think it speaks to the whole culture of the show, which that it’s a conversation, it’s not an interview, and it’s an extended thoughtful conversation. And so, you know, I’m looking for people who I think can sustain my interest and the viewers interest for half an hour, which is not written in stone, but the interviews tend to run I would say between 20-25 and 35 minutes. So you know, it can’t just be somebody’s got a new album out — although that clearly is one of the reasons they want to talk to you — but they’ve got to have an interesting story, interesting experiences, interesting views.
And, you know, I think if you look at the people that we’ve either interviewed or are planning to interview this year on the what I would call non-news side: people like Carol Burnett or Jay Leno, Dr. Phil, Goldie Hawn, they’ve got stories to tell. And they’ve seen a lot and done a lot. And that’s interesting to me — and I think interesting to our audience.
Some of the guests have made news on the show. James Cameron acknowledged for the first time that he was gonna make more Avatar movies in his interview with you [after the film turned a profit in his view], Bryan Cranston made comments about “MAGA” that went viral. How much of it is driven by a desire to make news versus just to have those interesting conversations with interesting people?
I’m a newsman. It’s in my DNA. I’ve been doing it for 50 years. You certainly always want someone to say something that’s new and gets attention and gets some buzz, but I have to say, I mean, I went into this when I came over to CNN with a thought that it’s less about making headlines — although I’m certainly not adverse to it, you know, I’m happy when it happens — than it is a conversation.
I mean, I really do make the point with the guests that I’m talking to, I do a little talk up on the side before we begin, and I always say this is not an interview. I’m gonna be asking you questions, but it’s a conversation. Nobody’s going to mistake it for their living room. But if we get sufficiently engaged at some point, I’m hoping that the guest and I will both kind of forget where we are, and we’ll have a real conversation, and there have been several I think.
I have an interview with, or conversation with, Carol Burnett this new season. And I wanted to ask her about this blessed life she’s had [and] that she had a daughter Carrie, who had a serious drug addiction and ended up dying of cancer at 38. And one of the ways that I got into it was to share the fact that I had a brother who died when he was 19 years old in a mountain climbing accident. I could ask her about it in a way of, I’ve been through this experience as well and know how painful it is and that the wound never heals. And again, I think, in this very artificial environment, it creates a greater likelihood, and it certainly was true with Carol, of a real authentic conversation.
I wanted to ask about that because that’s something that struck me with with a lot of the interviews, it is a conversation, it’s a back and forth. And it’s different than, frankly, like a Fox News Sunday, which is more of a traditional television interview format. Was that part of the appeal to you, when you first made the move to CNN, about doing this?
I’d been doing a Sunday talk show with 10-12 minute interviews. And on a Sunday morning, there are three or four other Sunday shows, and you’re trying to compete for headlines and news, sometimes you would even have the same guest. So you’d rather make the news in your interview then somebody else gets it in their interview. And after 18 years, I was a little tired of that. The idea was, first of all, getting away exclusively from politics and trying to make it a more relaxed conversation, a more interesting conversation.
And one of the things that I noticed was in a 10- or 12-minute interview, which is a long time on TV, but that’s what the length of interviews were on Fox News Sunday, I spent a lot of my time deciding what I wasn’t going to ask about because it still goes by really fast. Now it’s 30 minutes, or more, and you can cut it down. There’s never a point where I say well, I don’t want to get into that because I don’t have time. And oftentimes — and this is to me is also the mark of a conversation — you listen, and somebody says something surprising, and suddenly you go off in a direction you never intended to go and if it works, great. And if it doesn’t, you just take it out.
You know we are beginning the 2024 presidential election cycle and I am curious how you’re thinking about it, given the new show’s format. How do you want to participate in that cycle while still being true to what your show is?
I would not want to sit on the sidelines of a presidential election. So I think naturally we’re going to evolve. We’re going to continue doing the interviews with non-political people, that’ll always be a mark of the show. We’ve done news interviews in the past. I mean, this last season, I interviewed Nancy Pelosi, I interviewed [Michigan] Governor Whitmer. I think that [I] will probably do more newsmakers, not just political newsmakers but business newsmakers. I think there’ll be more of that. But we’ll keep true to what the original idea of this show is: Conversations, longer more thoughtful exchanges and always at least one interview on the show with somebody who’s not in the political world.
Do you miss covering the day to day politics of an election cycle? Or are you happy to have that part of things behind you?
Oh, there are days when I think I’d like to get back into things, sure. But as a general rule, I don’t miss the day-to-day coverage. And I think doing these weekly interviews will give me an opportunity to sort of satisfy my curiosity and interest about politics and what’s going on in news and what’s going on in that part of the world while also being able to have these other conversations.
As we get more into the the 2024 race, I think that I’m interested in stretching and working those muscles, which I’ve had for a long time, and being a little more topical, but those you can’t book weeks in advance because you don’t know what’s going to be interesting that week. One of the things [appealing to those guests] is that you’re able to offer them instead of five minutes on the Today show or 10 minutes on a Sunday news show, we can go into greater depth, we can talk about policy and what your motivation is. I certainly don’t mind headlines, but I’m not going in headline hunting the way that you do on a Sunday talk show.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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