BY ALEX WEPRIN | HollywoodReporter.Com
Chris Wallace’s CNN+ hiring served as a shot across the bow for competitors as streaming-first deals could become the new TV news norm.
On Dec. 12, the news took almost everyone by surprise. Staffers in Fox News Channel’s DC newsroom, and guests on its Fox News Sunday, who were speaking with anchor Chris Wallace on-air minutes before, were kept in the dark until Wallace revealed the news on-air: It was his last show, and he was leaving for something different.
“I want to try something new, to go beyond politics to all the things I’m interested in,” he said. “I’m ready for a new adventure. And I hope you’ll check it out.”
That new adventure was revealed later that morning: Wallace was joining CNN, but in a twist, his primary job would be on CNN’s forthcoming streaming service CNN+.
“It’s a stunner,” a senior executive at another TV news division texted after the Wallace news came out. “There’s no way Chris is the last [high-profile name to join CNN+].”
Every TV news division has begun to invest in streaming, while balancing that investment with slow decline of the linear TV business.
Fox Corp. says it is committing $200-$300 million to invest in its streaming businesses, which include the streaming services Fox Nation and Fox Weather, while CNN and NBC News are hiring hundreds of employees to bulk up their streaming offerings.
Some new hires, like CNN’s Kasie Hunt and NBC’s Tom Llamas, have jobs that are streaming-first, with linear roles on the side, and some existing talent, like NBC’s Hallie Jackson and Chuck Todd, split duties between linear and streaming as well.
“Hallie is a perfect example of someone who can tape a piece on the Today show in the morning, can appear on MSNBC during the hard news portion of its schedule, and can then anchor this show at 5 o’clock on News Now, and can even pop up on Nightly at 6:30 with another piece,” NBC News president Noah Oppenheim told The Hollywood Reporterahead of Jackson’s streaming debut. “You see the same pattern with Tom Llamas, it is not about streaming-first or broadcast-first, it is about best-in-class journalists who are number one in terms of what they do and pushing their work out among all our platforms to all those audiences.”
And increasingly the feeling is mutual.
“I really believe that this is where the industry is going,” says an anchor who has worked in both streaming and linear, explaining why talent are becoming more friendly to streaming.
To that end, Rachel Maddow is expected to announce a new schedule in 2022 that reduces her time on-air, but gives her a larger presence in digital.
“You will see people continue to do both, to have a TV show and have a foot in the streaming platform,” says industry consultant Brad Adgate. “[Maddow] wouldn’t have that available to her on a linear news network. It is a lot of untrampled ground that some of those news personalities may be attracted to, because it allows them to work on projects that they might not otherwise be able to.”
So while the viewership in streaming news may currently pale in comparison to linear news, with broadcast shows still attracting millions of viewers daily, and cable news channels among the most-watched, there is no expectation that the status quo will remain that way.
But no publicly-announced streaming-first hire thus far as the name recognition of Wallace, who had moderated two presidential debates, and served in high-profile roles at NBC (he was moderator of Meet the Press in 1987-1988) and ABC before joining Fox.
With former NBC News and MSNBC anchor Brian Williams now available, and other high-profile names occasionally bubbling up ahead of contract renewals (Gayle King? Norah O’Donnell?), the Wallace hiring served as a shot across the bow that CNN is serious about streaming.
“This speaks volumes about our commitment to journalism and CNN+, and we are thrilled to have Chris on the ground floor of helping us build the next generation of CNN and news,” CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker said about Wallace’s hire.
Or, as a senior CNN source told THR, CNN+ “is the future of CNN.”
Disney CEO Bob Chapek, who has pivoted his company to be streaming-first, has said in recent months that every new sports deal that ESPN signs will include full streaming rights. It doesn’t mean that ESPN will stream everything on ESPN+, but it has the optionality for when the time comes to break free of the cable bundle.
Fox Corp. CEO Steve Tomsic said a version of the same thing earlier this month, telling a UBS conference “we have got all the attributes in place from a Fox News perspective, from a technology perspective, a billing and subscriber perspective, to be able to create that optionality,” Tomsic said. “Now, we aren’t going to pull the trigger on that anytime soon, but it gives us that base to work from.”
There’s increasingly an expectation in the business that TV news outlets will follow suit, with any major hire expected to have streaming duties alongside any linear responsibilities. And as the Wallace, Hunt and Llamas hires show, streaming-first deals could become the new TV news norm.
But CNN will also have a challenge unlike its network news competition, or Fox News. The NBC, ABC and CBS streaming services are free, while MSNBC’s is tied into Peacock. Fox Nation, meanwhile, is more of an entertainment offering than a news offering.
In other words, CNN+ will be the only paid streaming news service. It’s a new market, with demand uncertain. Wallace, Hunt and the high-profile hires sure to follow will test its thesis.
“I worked at CNN during the Gulf War, and I have very vivid memories of pulling overnight ratings and thinking holy sh*t? A cable network can do this?” Adgate recalls. “It legitimized CNN as a news source because for 10 years you knew they were there, but it wasn’t appointment viewing.”
With streaming news operations beginning to staff up in a meaningful way with boldface names like Wallace, Todd, Jackson, Llamas and others, they are still waiting for their “holy sh*t” moment.
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