Smarts, smile fuel MSNBC host's rapid rise

If there was any doubt about MSNBC’s faith in Rachel Maddow, look where they sent her in the past few weeks: She guested on Jay Leno and visited the ladies at “The View.”

And when Keith Olbermann was anchoring MSNBC’s coverage of President Obama’s first speech before Congress, she was the first analyst he called upon for reaction — a plum position that in the past may have gone to Tim Russert.

After struggling for years to fill the prime 9 p.m. slot — with personalities as disparate as Rita Cosby to Dan Abrams — the network has landed a solid performer in Maddow. Her ratings are a vast improvement over what has been there recently, and she has helped erase doubts the network could carry over sizable audiences from the record heights of the campaign season.

In fact, she’s made enough of a splash that the network is looking to fill the hour after hers with a compatible show, a prospect that has liberal groups lobbying for a like-minded progressive to counter Fox News.

Maddow has made her mark by delivering extended commentary laden with dashes of humor and flashes of wonkish prose but free of righteous rant — smart snark with a smile. Although she is graduating into ever more serious interviews, most recently with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her show is not about the guests, but her own musings on the day’s events, as if she were still doing her Air America radio show.

“I pretend no one can see me when I do the show,” she says over a recent breakfast in Los Angeles. “I don’t think about people watching me on TV. I think it would stress me out.”

But it remains to be seen whether this formula can last in a hypercompetitive environment dotted with fragile egos and fussy tastes. That’s not to mention what happens as progressive polarization against George W. Bush gives way to more nuanced differences over President Obama’s agenda.

Even Olbermann, her lead-in host to whom she credits for a lot of her success, has drawn ridicule among the same liberal media elites who first took notice of him in the darkest hours of the Bush years. “Saturday Night Live” parodied his “Special Comment,” with Ben Affleck giving an over-the-top portrayal.

At breakfast, Maddow wore what she calls the “dress of a first-grader”: a green T-shirt, black-framed glasses and sneakers. On “The View,” she riffed on her own indifference to going into makeup before her show. There is a goofy charm about her — answers to difficult questions are sometimes followed by a five-second giggle.

She also professed to be nervous about the day ahead: She says she will spend about eight hours of prep time, but worries about breaking away to do Leno.

“I scramble all day,” she says. “It is so unhealthy. I am going to be dead by the time I am 40. Of course, I have been this way my entire life, so maybe not. I am inured to it.”

Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media, notes that most successful cable news shows are personality-driven.

“Certainly there is something very different from typical news shows. She comes across different. She looks different. She has qualities of her personality that stand out.”

MSNBC president Phil Griffin calls her a “phenomenon,” comparing the speed of her success with that of Katie Couric’s debut on “Today,” although their styles may be opposite.

His enthusiasm is tempered by the fact Fox News draws more than twice her overall audience with Sean Hannity. In the latest Nielsen numbers for the February ratings period, he drew an average of 2.77 million viewers (671,000 of those in 25-to-54 demo).

Maddow averaged 1.22 million viewers overall and 383,000 in the 25-54 demo. That’s double the net’s performance a year ago, and although CNN’s “Larry King Live” edged her out for the month, she has topped him more often on recent nights.

What is encouraging for MSNBC is that the makeup of her audience is younger than that of her cable-news competitors, which is no small feat in a business where 60 can seem like the new 30. Like Olbermann’s viewers, “The Rachel Maddow Show” skews more male than female, and its average income level is slightly higher than that of the competition, according to MSNBC. Her top market is San Francisco — no surprise there — but it is followed closely by West Palm Beach and Norfolk-Portsmouth.

Maddow professes to be too new to the business to fully understand ratings or even the competition. She says she has never seen Hannity’s show — she calls him “Mr. Hannity” — and citing her busy schedule, she doubts that she will, even for curiosity’s sake.

“I am not curious,” she concludes.

A year ago, Maddow, 35, was an Air America host paired against Pat Buchanan in offering analysis during the cabler’s primary coverage. Network honchos were struck not just by her eloquence and clarity, but by the fact she never expressed contempt for Buchanan — no easy feat in a landscape that rewards and even thrives on flare-ups.

She was enlisted to fill in for Olbermann over the summer, and, encouraged by the numbers she posted for her stints, MSNBC gave her her own show in September.

Maddow immediately caught on, a fact she credits to her election-season launch. Griffin also cites Maddow’s following, on radio and the Internet, and the fact that she was a “different, new voice.” “Rachel takes what she says seriously but she doesn’t take herself seriously,” he says.

Maddow is the first openly gay host of a network primetime news show, but her differences may be better defined in her lifestyle: She and her partner, artist Susan Mikula, live in rural western Massachusetts, where she commutes from New York on weekends, and “where the people care about whether you have shoveled out your mailbox, and people don’t really care whether you are beating Hannity.”

“I always feel like a fish out of water,” Maddow says. “That is my existential fate. Some of it is not having worked in TV before. Some of it is being a schlub. … Like every host probably feels, ‘I am not like those other guys.’ You just feel it from a different perspective.”

In fact, Maddow professes to have not fully grasped what comes with being a high-profile figure with her background.

“Regardless of what is happening on the network around me, just having that hour is a pretty big sense of responsibility,” she says. “That is enough to freak me out.”

If anything, this distance has given her cover to avoid being dragged into the media gossip mill. By all accounts, she stayed out of the network’s own election-year dramas, from on-air sparring between anchors to off-kilter comments that forced the likes of Chris Matthews and David Shuster to apologize.

Most recently, as MSNBC prepared to cut to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s response to Obama’s address, Matthews blurted out “Oh, God!” as the governor appeared, and it was heard on the air.

Maddow doesn’t make a big deal out of the moment. “I mean, it is not like he said something mean. It was literally a generic explanation that has no meaning of its own.”

She had her own response to Jindal, a fellow Rhodes scholar: She was speechless, or as she calls it, perhaps with a bit of hyperbole, “stunned to the point of incoherence.”

She explains: “Dude, this whole idea that you are the guy who is putting forth as the new face of the party, goes and says that the way that we should think what we want from the federal government is to be mindful of how little the government can do and how bad the government sucks? That is your argument?”

Maddow seems grateful for any Republican — or those who do not share her views — to come on the show. At breakfast, she stewed over whether to somehow make up for a recent pretaped interview with Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, the creators of the “Left Behind” books. Jenkins came away upset with how his remarks were edited, charging that the show “made us look like idiots.” “No more taping when we’re on with opponents,” he declared on his blog afterward.

“I get where he is coming from and I think we might have screwed that up,” she says. “He feels misled about the appearance on my show, and I don’t want to leave that impression. If he felt that way totally without reason, I would be like, ‘This is sour grapes. He doesn’t like the way he came off.’ I think it is a little sour grapes, but I think he has got a point that we should have told him that, ‘OK, we are going to run this part of it.’ “

Eventually, the show posted the entire interview online.

“I hope that the show speaks for itself in terms of making the case for Republicans,” she says. “I don’t believe in humiliating people. That is not what I am there to do. I am not there to make you look bad. I am there to talk with you. You can make yourself look bad.”

The idea that Maddow has somehow punctured the shout-fest mentality of cable certainly is challenged on the right.

David Frum, the former White House speechwriter under President Bush, went on the show in October to talk about a recent column he wrote. Rather, he challenged her tone, telling her that it was “heavy sarcasm and sneering and it’s disregard for a lot of the substantive issues that really are important.”

Maddow begged to differ, of course. “Once he raised it, you sort of have to go there,” she says.

There’s also little doubt. the nature of the debate on the show will change, especially as Obama’s policies take shape. Maddow has been supportive of many of his policies, but worries over how far he will take issues like health care reform.

“I would hope that what I am doing has a utilitarian value across the ideological spectrum,” she says. “I would hope that I am giving you authoritative information, and that I am entertaining you, even if you disagree with me.”

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