Maddow herself is the highest-paid and highest-rated talent at MSNBC, but beyond her own program, her quest to fill the network with her protégés may be dragging down ratings. Being an intellectual and a true believer is not, it seems, a good thing if you’re in the ratings business. Though Maddow looks askance at populist showmen such as Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, and Al Sharpton, their shows regularly outperform those of Maddow’s wonky acolytes. In fact, Hayes’s show has created a drag on Maddow’s own ratings as his anemic numbers provide her with a weak lead-in.
“I liked Rachel because she is totally sincere, she is what she seems to be, she’s smart, she loves to debate for its own sake,” says Tucker Carlson, a former MSNBC host. After watching a tape her agent sent along, Carlson (who is also co-founder of the Daily Caller) championed Maddow in the face of Griffin’s initial objections. She was, at the time, a radio host at the now-defunct Air America network. “I always got along with Rachel. She’s a hard worker, she’s not a bullshitter,” he says. Maddow appeared regularly on Carlson’s show and began substituting for former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. Then she got her own show in the summer of 2008, when Griffin decided to make the network, which had once employed conservatives such as Carlson, Pat Buchanan, and Michael Savage, a refuge for liberals and an answer to Fox News. It was a business calculation, not an ideological move.
Maddow, by contrast, is motivated by ideology. “If you debate for a living, you’re going to lose sometimes. Sometimes your preconceptions are wrong — that has never happened to her one time,” says a former colleague. “She is actually not that interested in reality; she is the most ideological person I’ve ever met. That is not somebody you want in charge of your programming, because she might put on a great show, but she cannot make rational decisions — her agenda is changing America. . . . She really thinks she is changing America for the better. You can’t have somebody like that in charge of your programming.”
Like the Democratic party itself, MSNBC is in transition. The party is no longer a coalition encompassing big labor, Hollywood, white ethnics, teachers’ unions, and minorities. Under President Obama, it has shed much of its blue-collar constituency while consolidating its gains among minorities, college-educated whites (women in particular), gays, and members of public-sector unions. A former MSNBC employee describes MSNBC’s transition this way: “When I worked there, it was axiomatic that all of our viewers were white — that’s what Phil Griffin said point blank. Rachel has decided to make a play for black viewers.” The New Yorker reported last year that MSNBC’s audience is now 30 percent African American.
MSNBC’s wonks, nonetheless, are seeing weak ratings because the cable-television audience does not mirror the American, or Democratic, electorate. It’s older: A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that 57 percent of Maddow’s audience is past 50, compared with 43 percent of all Americans. It’s also slightly less educated: According to the same study, 26 percent of MSNBC viewers have a college degree, compared with 29 percent of all Americans. Of course, the numbers can be parsed in many ways, but it’s difficult to imagine there’s a large appetite among MSNBC’s core audience for the graduate-level punditry served up by Maddow’s protégés. Nielsen data — which showed the network last year posting its lowest prime-time ratings since 2007 both in the coveted 25–54 demographic and in total viewers — reflect that mismatch.
“They’re just not going to get those people watching cable news,” says a longtime cable-news insider. “That’s why their numbers suck. If they were going to go populist, I think they could challenge Fox. What if you took that brand of ‘Hey, middle-class America, you’re getting screwed by the banks and by the educated class, by the environmental movement’? Wow, I think you could beat Fox on that.”
The new step of having Rich Stockwell review scripts before they air is an attempt to impose order on the chaos reigning at the network. “Phil was a producer, trained from the beginning to accommodate hosts — he’s incapable of reining these guys in,” says a former colleague. He points to Olbermann, who left the network after spinning out of control three years ago. Though network executives said the relationship between Olbermann and MSNBC had been deteriorating for a long time, Griffin’s former colleague describes Olbermann, now at ESPN, as a broadcaster who was “talented as hell” and who “could have been an enduring star if Phil had been strong enough to keep him between the lines.” Instead, he says, “Phil let him destroy himself.” Griffin’s current challenge, it appears, is to keep Rachel Maddow from running roughshod over the network in a similar fashion as she seeks to remake it in her image.
NBC’s news group has undergone profound changes in the last year, and Griffin remains the last man standing from the inner circle of Jeff Zucker, the NBC chief fired after Comcast wrested control of the company from General Electric. Many insiders are baffled that Griffin has survived so long, with Comcast aggressively purging mandarins of an old order known for fat expense accounts, long lunches, and resting on their laurels.
“Phil is too close to the old-boy culture at the old NBC to survive a bad spell, especially with this matriarchy in charge now,” an insider said, referring to the overwhelmingly female leadership that has recently taken over NBC News. “One more MSNBC host says something stupid, and that’s it.”
So will this series of embarrassing public incidents induce NBC to make a change at the top at MSNBC and impose more discipline? Or will it allow Maddow’s ideological preferences to continue to define the channel?
“My life is better with every year of living it,” Maddow told Vanity Fair in 2012.
It’s good to be “queen” — to be a liberal paid millions by a publicly traded company to spread the progressive gospel. Rachel Maddow, striding about Rockefeller Plaza in her colored sneakers, may be the luckiest woman in television. For now.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.