Fox News taps Chris Wallace for talk show

October 28, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Fox News, the nation's edgiest television news shop, announced yesterday it will entrust its Sunday morning talk show to ABC News' Chris Wallace, an old-fashioned correspondent known for a painstaking approach to journalism. Wallace will begin his new duties in mid-November.

"It adds another big horse to our stable," said Brit Hume, anchor and Washington managing editor for Fox News.

Wallace, 56, takes over from Tony Snow, who served as host of Fox News Sunday since its creation in 1996. The program is seen on local Fox stations and affiliates across the country.

Snow, a former newspaper columnist and speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, last week accepted a position as a syndicated radio host with Fox News Radio. The opening led to the appointment after extensive talks that Wallace had with Hume and Roger Ailes, Fox News' chairman and CEO.

"I was very excited about the idea of coming over to Fox News," Wallace said yesterday during a telephone interview. "There's an energy and excitement and optimism about the future that you don't see elsewhere in television."

Currently, Wallace is a correspondent for the ABC News magazine program PrimeTime Live. He has recently filed stories on Hurricane Isabel, last summer's widespread energy blackouts and a controversy over how human organs are allocated to people waiting for transplants.

Wallace, the son of famed 60 Minutes interviewer Mike Wallace, got his start as a City Hall reporter and national correspondent for the Boston Globe. He then worked for WBBM, a CBS station in Chicago; WNBC in New York City; and NBC News. He covered Capitol Hill, where he competed against and befriended Hume, then with ABC News. Wallace covered political conventions and the Reagan White House and served briefly as host of NBC's Sunday morning show Meet the Press.

"He's one hell of a newsman," says Tom Bettag, the co-executive producer of ABC News' Nightline and the executive producer of This Week, his network's Sunday political show. "There are presenters and then there are reporters ... Chris is a real reporter who loves to dig. There's not a lazy bone in his body." Wallace has won major awards for his reporting, including the Peabody Award and several Emmys.

Wallace's contract with ABC News lapsed in June, but he said he decided not to sign again with the network while he considered alternatives. (Wallace said he was prevented from joining CBS' 60 Minutes II several years ago because ABC would not release him from his contract.)

While they attract upscale audiences, the Sunday political programs are not as lucrative as the networks' weekday morning programs, news magazines and the conventional evening news shows. But the Sunday shows are seen as prestige ventures, drawing on a tradition of an earlier age when public affairs programs helped networks to address concerns of federal regulators that they were serving the public good.

The program's anchor defines the success of the show, not only in executing the interviews but often coaxing senior government officials or other major political players to appear on the air. Fox News, which has positioned itself as an alternative to what it contends is the "liberal" establishment media of the networks and major newspapers, has found largely a welcome reception from the Bush administration.

"Within the culture of this city, these Sunday morning shows are a big deal," says Hume, who also serves as commentator on the Fox program.

NBC's Meet the Press, led by Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, leads the pack in ratings and is known for Russert's dogged interviewing style. Bob Schieffer, CBS' bureau chief, is the anchor of Face the Nation, while George Stephanopoulos replaced David Brinkley on ABC's This Week last year.

Fox News Sunday averages 1.64 million viewers weekly, the least of any of the four broadcast networks' programs. But it shows the strongest growth: The show is up about 26 percent from comparable figures last year. Meanwhile, This Week's audience of 2.54 million people represents an 11 percent decline, while CBS' 2.7 million is a slight decline. Meet the Press commands 4.25 million viewers each week for NBC, the same as a year ago.

Under Snow, the Fox show had a playful feel, with musical segues invoking humorous lyrical references and lively debates among commentators drawn from a pool that includes Hume; Morton Kondracke of Roll Call, which covers political affairs on Capitol Hill; Fred Barnes and William Kristol from the Weekly Standard; and Mara Liasson and Juan Williams of National Public Radio.

Hume said Wallace has "a twinkle in his eye," a sense of humor that shines through on the air. But more important, Hume said, was the knowledge Wallace can draw upon from his years as a political reporter. "He's been through the wars," Hume said.

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