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On Sunday, Chris Wallace announced that he would depart Fox News effective immediately. About an hour later, CNN released a statement that it had signed Wallace to host a weekday program on its upcoming streaming service, CNN+. So by noon ET, Wallace had hosted Fox News Sunday, left Fox News, and joined CNN.
Media writers, viewers, and hosts have since questioned Wallace’s decision to leave Fox News. Most notably, Howard Stern called the move foolish. “People don’t watch CNN,” Stern said. “Who the hell is going to pay for CNN+? Are they out of their mind?”
Stern and others are correct that Wallace will not push a significant number of viewers to CNN+ when it launches in Q1 2022. Of course it won’t. The market is still new for streaming platforms of mostly news content, and demand is low. Thus far, studio shows have not rated well on over-the-top media services. See ESPN+ for an example.
However, that doesn’t mean Wallace and CNN made a mistake in their alliance. They didn’t. From CNN’s perspective, Wallace adds value to the network’s plans. Understand CNN’s intentions:
AT&T will finalize its plan to spin WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company, off into a merger with Discovery Inc. in 2022. The new media company will focus primarily on streaming. In other words, CNN+ will join HBO Max and Discovery+ with the hopes of mimicking the success of Disney’s industry-shifting trio bundle of Hulu, ESPN+, and Disney+.
So CNN+ may not need to attract a large number of subscribers as a standalone service. Instead, it need only serve as a viable complement to HBO Max and Discovery+, a third offering of content to keep subscribers from canceling their subscriptions and moving to, say, Paramount+ or Tubi or Amazon Prime Video for the next month.
CNN+ will help WarnerMedia/Discovery convince cord-cutters that its streaming platforms offer the best replacement for cable. Its OTTs include movies, series, documentaries, historical content, and now with CNN+, live news coverage, a feature which most of its competitors do not yet offer.
To make that pitch, however, WarnerMedia/Discovery needs CNN+ to create a brand with enough name recognition and content to be worthy of promotion. In that sense, Wallace is not so much a ratings-getter as he is an ambassador, a marketing tool.
CNN needs a well-known face to feature on CNN+, an anchor people will notice and recognize on oversized billboards. The network needs someone to go on late-night shows to promote its streaming brand. Wallace appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in September.
Notice how the press release describes the format of Wallace’s upcoming program: an interview show that features “newsmakers across politics, business, sports, and culture.” The emphasis on a wide spectrum of topics and human interest stories indicates that CNN will promote Wallace’s show via its linear television programs. The network can build television segments around Wallace’s interviews and have him make appearances on other shows to discuss. At least initially, he’ll become the face and the brand of CNN+.
This level of name recognition and professional gravitas fit the mold John Malone — the largest shareholder on Discovery’s board — demands. Take a look at the guy who could soon wield power over CNN:
John Malone one of Discovery Channel’s major share holders purchasing CNN admitting CNN does not have real news or real journalists! pic.twitter.com/pNye4zZvLl
— Randy Quaid (@RandyRRQuaid) December 7, 2021
By signing Wallace, network president Jeff Zucker also showed other hosts that leaving television for a streaming service is now a stylish career move. Two years ago, most highly-paid anchors would never have considered leaving millions of television viewers for an upstart service. But dominos have since fallen in favor of streaming, such as cable declines and increased salary averages for digital hosts.
Since Wallace has now left a prestigious Sunday television program for CNN+, Zucker will find it easier to convince other linear hosts to leave television for the app. That alone is worth the cost of signing Wallace.
Ultimately, CNN had to make a splash before launching CNN+ to avoid an unremarkable launch. The network believes Chris Wallace will be the first of a series of signings as CNN+ enters the congested steaming fray.