The Fox News brand is an unqualified success in the cable news world, where Fox News Channel long ago dethroned the more established CNN. But translating that cable success to the broadcast world hasn't worked for Fox. "Fox News Sunday" runs a distant fourth to its rivals.
So Fox went out and hired someone with impeccable broadcast credentials, ABC's Chris Wallace to boost its Sunday morning show. Starting today, he replaces Tony Snow, who will do a daily radio program.
It's a return to Sunday mornings for Wallace, 56, but his absence has been a long one: In the late 1980s, he briefly moderated NBC's "Meet the Press" before leaving for ABC's prime-time newsmagazine world. Some things have changed since then. ABC's "This Week" is no longer the show to beat, for one; NBC's "Meet the Press" is.
Unlike ABC, which is trying to reinvent Sunday television, Wallace says he plans to stick with the tried-and-true format of newsmakers and, just as important, the journalist round table that follows. (ABC's "This Week" "made a big mistake when they gave up the panel," he said.) Unlike Snow, however, he won't do a personal essay to close each show. One new touch he will bring: Wallace will end each show with a three-minute profile of a Washington "power player."
For his first show, Wallace landed presidential candidate Howard Dean, who has been on "Fox News Sunday" since 1998.
Ratings "aren't written in stone," Wallace said. "You just have to try to do it better, smarter, more aggressively." But he acknowledged that NBC's Tim Russert "has the best numbers and the most clout to get the best 'gets,' which in turn helps him get better numbers. And one thing all these politicians can do, they can count."
Like his competitors, Wallace complained about how hard it is to get well-rehearsed guests off their prepared speeches. His remedy, a format that Russert is famous for, is "research, everything from a computer search to talking to people around town and trying to dig up information, past statements, any inside scoop, inside skinny" to counter the pre-set talking points. "War games" -- conducting a mock interview with other Fox staffers to have a comeback ready for the predicted answers -- will be part of his preparation, he said, so his guests "can't get something past you ....It's not a game of 'gotcha,' it's a game of having done your homework."
In the cable world, Fox News' calling card has been its plethora of conservative voices -- which it says is an attempt to counter liberal voices that dominate other TV news outlets. When Wallace first announced he was headed to Fox, he told reporters he had become convinced his new home was "fair and balanced." The remarks unleashed a torrent of Internet debate, including leaked internal documents from a former Fox producer that seemed to show Fox executives shaping the news to fit their convictions.
Two weeks into his new job, Wallace said he doesn't regret making the comments. "No matter how much due diligence you've done, there's a certain courtship that goes on" when you head to a new job, he said. "And you can't help but wonder when you get inside and you're a working stiff, an employee, is it going to change?" But so far, he said, "there hasn't been one word, one hint, one suggestion other than that we are going to play this absolutely straight. All we want to do is the best, fairest most even-handed job of covering the news."
Show: "Fox News Sunday"
When: 8 a.m.
He matters because: Fox is counting on the ABC refugee to make it as competitive as it is on cable news.
-- Elizabeth Jensen