On Friday nights, her “The Rachel Maddow Show,” arguably the linchpin of the NBCUniversal-owned cable-news network’s primetime lineup, typically feeds into another MSNBC staple: reruns of the prison documentary series “Lockup.” As Maddow fades from the air, a deep-voiced narrator often tells viewers of graphic content that is about to surface on their screens. She typically tries to write a funny segue to cap off her hour, humorously informing viewers they are about to hear from a nameless “warden.”
“Is there a prison show this evening?” she asks her staff of producers and researchers on a Friday afternoon when the prospect of a coming blizzard means MSNBC may well go live to storm coverage. “If we are going to prison, where are we going?”
It’s a degree of attention which most TV anchors probably would not give, but Maddow thinks scrutiny of the minute is important. During the meeting, she quizzes producers and researchers on everything from what kind of cheese went missing from a semi-trailer in Germantown, Wisconsin, to the details of the plot of the 2014 film “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”
“The best part of the story might be a very small detail,” the 42-year-old host said during a recent break in preparations for her show.
Maddow’s desire to get into the weeds and inner workings of nearly everything that passes her way is lending her new momentum at a time when the cable network that backs her, MSNBC, is in deep flux. MSNBC rose to new heights by embracing a partisan approach to presenting the news. Day and night, the network presented stories of the day through a progressive lens. Maddow and her fellow primetime hosts, Chris Hayes and Lawrence O’Donnell, still do. During a large part of the day, however, MSNBC has shifted its focus to breaking coverage, becoming a sort of “NBC News Channel” that emphasizes hard news and politics – a move executives hope will help the network rebound from severe ratings losses over the past two years.
Does her show have to follow suit? “They don’t tell me what to say. The network doesn’t program my show. They don’t tell me what to cover and what not to cover,” Maddow said while talking in her office. “I want to be trustworthy so that continues to be our deal, because that’s the only way I’m going to be able to do this show. That’s the way I work.”
Maddow’s program is different from many others. Whether or not viewers and others agree with her point of view, there is no denying she has immersed herself in the topics she discussed before holding forth on them. “The Rachel Maddow Show” does not rely overmuch on talking heads – indeed, one of the challenges of the program is booking guests because final decisions on the lineup don’t come until an afternoon news meeting – and instead pivots on Maddow’s ability to synthesize the nitty-gritty of a situation brewing in some part of the country and make it of interest to the broader populace. She’s a raconteur. The staff even limits the number of regular segments, because taking an issue of the day that Maddow wants to discuss and tailoring it to a format could prove difficult, said Cory Gnazzo, the Maddow program’s executive producer.
In recent weeks, Maddow’s attention to the granular has helped propel her. Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly wins more viewers overall and in the demographic most desired by advertisers almost every night, but Maddow’s viewership in that category – people between 25 and 54 – is up 58% in January through the 27th over the year-earlier period, according to Nielsen. On Sunday, she began what is expected to be a months-long sideline gig co-anchoring MSNBC’s live politics coverage with Brian Williams in the run-up to the 2016 election for U.S. President. On Thursday, she will moderate with Chuck Todd a debate among the three Democratic candidates for President. In recent print ads MSNBC has taken out in newspapers, a photo of Maddow is the same size as those given to Williams, political commentator Chris Matthews and the team from MSNBC’s signature morning program, “Morning Joe,” Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
Maddow “is the Steph Curry of our primetime lineup,” said Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president, making a reference to the acclaimed Golden State Warriors shooter. “I don’t want to interrupt the flow of work being done,” he said, adding: “I want her this year to be recognized for her reporting and the effort that she makes every day I want to focus on that.”
She describes her live-moderating assignment as one in which anything might happen. “Nobody knows who’s going to win! I mean, who on the Democratic side knows who’s going to win? That’s freaking spectacular, just in terms of suspense,” she said of the Iowa Caucus. She sees a lot of potential for trouble among the Republicans as well. “Donald Trump gets all his information from watching clips of people talking about him,” she told staffers during the production meeting. “What you hear from him about himself is what he has heard from other people about him.”
MSNBC recently sent Maddow to host a town hall in the troubled city of Flint, Michigan, which her program began to focus on in December. The water there had been discovered to contain dangerous levels of lead after the city changed its water source and neglected to add anti-corrosion chemicals to its water, leading to leaching from pipes. Maddow staffers had been following the situation, owing to some previous stories they had worked centered on Michigan government.
Flint residents had complained about water for months, but Maddow said her staff wanted to wait for the right moment, “the time all the pieces came together and we could say what the problem was, and what the scale of the problem was and whodunnit – not just that Flint was old and sad, and a bad thing happened,” she explained. For the story to generate interest on a national level, she said, she had to point to the fact that “somebody did something and it had consequences.”
The result? The Maddow program has been given a large degree of credit for making Flint’s struggle a story of national concern. The host is shy about her role in the story, noting that local media like Michigan Radio and the Flint Journal have been on it for a longer period of time. “I don’t want to take credit for their work,” she said. “I do feel we gave it a little bit of a boost in terms of a national profile.”
Waiting for the right moment to jump on a brewing local story has been key to Maddow’s success at MSNBC, where she has delved into the tale of a river in North Carolina polluted by Duke Energy coal ash and is currently keeping tabs on a quirky story out of Mississippi, where the state legislature overturned a straw-drawing tiebreaker that kept a Democrat lawmaker in office, resulting in a Republican majority. “We had been sort of waiting for various explanatory pieces to come into full view, and once we had a clearer view of it,” the Flint story was appropriate for her show to dissect, she said. “It was actually emotionally wrenching to realize that we were going to be the first high-profile national coverage. It’s not that there wasn’t other national coverage before, but we realized this was going to be the thing we were going to be covering for months.”
To get these stories, Maddow and her staff keep tabs on local newspapers and local blogs, explained Gnazzo, the producer, who also suggested the show has sources in various parts of the country who might alert staff to something interesting. For her part, Maddow said she might study everything from a medical journal to a trade publication for government executives in preparation for an evening’s broadcast. “It’s actually like a library,” said Griffin of Maddow’s office.
Because this is an election year, Maddow is likely to place more emphasis on politics, said Gnazzo, suggesting political stories could take up to 60% of the focus of her program in 2016. “Presidential years are for us and every cable-news show a whole different ballgame,” he said. But there are other important stories, “and we don’t want to take our eyes off of those.”
Maddow isn’t looking to dumb things down. She believes “you can get a general American cable-news audience to graduate school,” but only if the report is rooted in the facts – and lots of them. “I do think if you are good enough at expository writing and the use of visual elements, you can get to an incredibly intense level of detail, and have people really get it,” she said. “But you have to be good at it.” Chances are no one is locking Rachel Maddow away in the near future.