In a four-part miniseries now available on the NBCUniversal streaming hub, the one-time White House Communications Director and host of MSNBC’s “Deadline: White House” is launching the first entry in “Deadline: Special Report,” a series of deep dives into issues she might not typically cover during her late-afternoon cable shift. Wallace interviews actors Taraji P. Henson and Rosie Perez, as well as Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn, about mental health and how to make it more a part of the national conversation. Viewers of the Peacock series, executive produced by Patrick Burkey, will also see Wallace interview a doctor who has pioneered a novel approach to mental health care inside and outside the classroom
Struggles with mental health, anxiety and feelings of being isolated are “so universal,” and they became more so as the nation grappled with the pandemic, Wallace tells Variety. “I don’t know anyone who isn’t touched by a challenge or hasn’t struggled.”
The interviews get “deeply personal,” says Wallace, with Henson acknowledging having suicidal thoughts during the pandemic and Vonn discussing her mother, who had recently passed away. The conversations were held in person at NBC’s Studio 6A, a facility that has been used for everything from live broadcasts featuring Chris Hayes to Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager’s “Today” hour to Megyn Kelly’s stab at morning TV.
More conversations are on the way, says Wallace. “The idea is to do multiple series and deep dives into single topics without overlapping too much with what we do on the broadcast.”
By expanding her aperture, Wallace is helping MSNBC cross a tricky bridge. Every national TV-news outlet is trying to develop content for streaming audiences, but the cable networks face a thorny challenge. While popular anchors are most likely to woo audiences to check out nascent streaming venues, offering programming that’s too much like what’s already being delivered on cable would cannibalize audiences and potentially anger distributors who count on exclusive content to keep their subscribers from cutting the cord.
On Fox News Channel, news coverage and primetime opinion are two of the main products. But on Fox Nation, anchors and hosts such as Steve Doocy and Ainsley Earhardt examine hobbies like cooking or books, while Tucker Carlson offers an extra take on something he may not always cover in primetime. Before CNN’s streaming venue, CNN+, was scuttled by corporate parent Warner Bros. Discovery, the outlet had Don Lemon leading a talk show with a live studio audience (one show, an evening newscast led by Wolf Blitzer, did seem similar in tone to his TV program “The Situation Room”).
Despite the sensitive topic at the center of Wallace’s first streaming outing, the interviewees didn’t hold back. “I was surprised on a very human level how many people wanted to talk to people about this, how many high-profile people there were eager to get this conversation on to center stage and talk about it,” says Lisa Ferri, a senior producer for “Deadline: White House” who is working with Wallace on the special reports. The participants were “so committed to going there and laying it all out on the line,” she says, noting that the interview sessions “had almost the feel of an old-fashioned Larry King or Barbara Walters conversation. They were longer, more conversational, and not constricted by time.”
When it comes to streaming, MSNBC may be counting heavily on Wallace and some of her colleagues on the daily cable schedule. In August, the network pared back some of the programs it was making available on its Peacock streaming hub, canceling shows led by Zerlina Maxwell and Ayman Mohyeldin. A few months earlier, MSNBC unveiled a plan to make some of its best-known opinion programs from cable available to Peacock premium-tier customers, along with specials with top hosts including Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, Trymaine Lee and others.
Viewers of “Deadline: The White House” aren’t being deprived of deeper conversations. On occasion, Wallace has held multi-segment interviews with newsmakers such as Michael Cohen or former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and the format remains something the anchor and her team want to incorporate into the daily show.