Ready for Her Primetime Debut
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow makes the move from talking head to host
By Christopher Lisotta -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/7/2008 8:00:00 PM
MSNBC's newest host, Rachel Maddow, knows how to talk politics. For the past nine months, she has been one of the cable news network's top analysts, sparring with the major players in the 2008 presidential race plus the larger-than-life personalities that are also on the MSNBC payroll.
But Maddow is ready to take on the lighter side of news that's required to fill a nightly show like her new primetime MSNBC series The Rachel Maddow Show, which begins Sept. 8 at 9 p.m. ET.
“I love singing cats and dogs on skateboards,” she admits. “I am really an Internet kid. I am of, by and for YouTube. In my sensibility of what is useful information, it is not a stretch for me to incorporate that stuff.”
For anyone worried that she can't make the tricky transition from occasional talking head to bona fide host, Maddow points to her gig as a daily host of her own show on the left-leaning radio network Air America.
There she mixes the latest news and commentary from Iraq with loopy stories like a recent where-are-they-now piece on animals used in Russia's space program and a self-depreciating mix of sarcastic bits like her satirical “Ask Dr. Maddow” call-in segment. “I have as goofy a sense of humor and as goofy a news sense as anybody else,” she says.
Maddow's rise at MSNBC has been meteoric. An AIDS activist who worked a number of odd jobs while pursuing degrees at Stanford and Oxford, Maddow, 35, began her career in media as a radio sidekick at stations in Massachusetts before joining Air America in 2004.
That background makes her different. Mark Green, Air America's president, describes Maddow as the “Obama of radio.” Despite relatively little experience she shows “how to convert brilliance, eloquence, hard work and poise under pressure into stardom,” he says. “And beyond the hard work, you gotta be entertaining.”
She took those tools to TV to become a commentator on MSNBC's short-lived Tucker with Tucker Carlson, and then to a stint at CNN. That led to more airtime on MSNBC and a pilot for CNN. The tug-of-war ended in January when MSNBC hired her as a political analyst.
It was an open secret the network had big plans for Maddow, who guest-hosted on Race for the White House With David Gregory and Countdown With Keith Olbermann to welcome reviews, particularly from Olbermann, one of her big boosters, and MSNBC's emerging linchpin.
Within eight months MSNBC announced that Maddow would be replacing Dan Abrams in its important 9 p.m. ET/PT block, which sits between the 8 p.m. live Countdown telecast and the 10 p.m. repeat. The goal is to make that 9 o'clock spot as strong as the rest of the night, says Bill Wolf, MSNBC's VP of primetime.
“Given her appearances with Keith on his show, we think she's pretty well-known by that audience, and we hope Keith's fans like Rachel,” Wolff wrote in an e-mail. “If things go the way we hope they do, a lot of Countdown devotees will watch Rachel's show, which, if we're lucky, will make for a good competitive performance and a good lead-in for Countdown at 10 p.m.”
Maddow is clear on the network's expectations. “We have to be very conscious that there is a giant pool of viewers at MSNBC already at 8:59:59,” she says. “The way to hold them is not to repeat what they have just seen the previous hour. Keith has been a mentor and an inspiration to me, and Countdown is the best show on cable television by a mile, but I'm not going to do Countdown.”
While many radio personalities who jump to TV stumble, Wolff feels Maddow is a safe bet. “Rachel has the unquantifiable and intangible quality of likability,” Wolff says. “She's fun to talk to in real life and fun to watch on TV because she is, in fact, an energetic, enthusiastic, funny, humble person. So that's one thing she brings to the hour. She is also exceptionally bright, so she processes information, analyzes it, and puts it in context incredibly quickly and amazingly effectively.”
It's a big jump from Air America to a major cable TV network that's part of a huge media conglomerate. But in terms of subject matter and personalities, Maddow is not worried that she will bring a mix that doesn't fit with MSNBC's sensibility.
“I see a slightly different mix, but that's also true of every host,” she says. “I certainly don't have an ideological or politically driven agenda in terms of whom I am going to bring on.”
Wolff agrees, pointing out that Countdown spent years establishing a group of voices that help constitute its show. “It would be a disservice to both shows to repeat too many personalities, voices or points of view,” he says.
Maddow maintains that she has no restraints on what she can cover on her show. “It may be the case where I learn where that electric fence is when my collar buzzes and I'll have to face that when it happens, but they certainly have set no bright lines,” she says about her new bosses.
One of her goals is to address weighty topics in an accessible way. “The more furious the topic, the more heavy the topic, the better you have to be telling the story,” she argues. “I worry less about crossing corporate bright lines than I do about making Afghanistan a highly rated story for us. I'm obsessed with a lot of different national security issues that have been branded as hard to do on television because they seem too heavy, too much of a downer or too far away in order to really come home to an American audience. I am thinking more strategically about how to be really good at telling those stories and getting them on the air.”
Maddow is jazzed for all the work it takes to feed the beast that is a daily hour of television, despite her full radio schedule and the work she's been doing covering the presidential race.
“I forced myself to take off one complete day, and the whole day I was on e-mail sending segment ideas to show producers,” Maddow says. “I feel like it's Christmas morning.”
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