Inside Rachel Maddow’s Plans to Reinvent Her MSNBC Show in Trump Era

rachel maddow
MIKE MCGREGOR for Variety

Even the busy Rachel Maddow has the right to expect the first week back from a holiday break to be an easy one. But in the current news cycle, easy is hard.

In a rare maneuver for a cable-news host who rarely books big-name guests in advance, her MSNBC staff had locked in Sen. Bernie Sanders for a three-segment interview on Jan. 2. With an hour and 15 minutes before “The Rachel Maddow Show” was set to air that day, producers discovered that the influential politician could not make it. Maddow had to rely on extra material her team had produced to fill the time. The next day, she journeyed to Washington, D.C., for back-to-back segments with Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, and Sanders, in a make-up for the previous night. On Thursday Jan. 5, she led with a look at how the National Enquirer mirrors current politics; the segment used so many on-screen elements, she joked, “I almost killed my graphics team!” On Friday, the capper: an analysis of President-elect Donald Trump’s downplaying of a much-scrutinized intelligence report stating in clear terms that Russia had influenced the U.S. presidential election. “I have to say, I don’t get weirded out by that much stuff in the news, but this kind of puts a shiver down my spine,” Maddow told viewers. “Our president-elect is lying to us.”

She doesn’t want any rest. “I’m more energized about my job now than I have been in a very long time,” she says in a recent interview. “I see my job as explaining stuff. Boy, there’s a lot to explain.”

With the election of Trump, Maddow is ready to embrace a new tactic that could be an immense challenge for her. Though she acknowledges that she has faced hurdles in luring top politicos to her show, she wants to land the big players in this new and difficult-to-read political epoch for interviews that could extend for 30 to 45 minutes. If senators, policymakers, and White House machers can go toe-to-toe with the anchor, so the theory goes, they will be rewarded with something significantly more valuable than a sound bite, the usual coin of the cable-news realm.

“I don’t pretend to be anybody other than who I am.”
Rachel Maddow

Maddow won’t be leaving behind the reporting and commentary that made her famous. Since she launched her program on MSNBC in the fall of 2008, she has established herself as a sort of news raconteur. She immerses herself in the wonky details of whatever she may be examining — a river in North Carolina polluted by Duke Energy coal ash, for example — then weaves those granular bits into a colorful tale of national import, one she often tells in a mammoth 20-minute opening segment. So reliant is her program on her investigations and storytelling that it has typically had little use for the talking heads who tend to populate so much of the cable-news landscape.

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“I do feel like where I do best, and what our audience seems to respond to the most, is expository work, explanatory work, putting things in context,” she says. “When I can get interviews with people who are in positions of authority, people who are decision-makers and players in this new political era that we are in, I hope I can have a conversation with them and press them so that they talk about things they would not necessarily talk about in other places.”

While she is open that her politics are liberal, she says her news delivery is not: “I’m just doing my job. I don’t pretend to be anybody other than who I am, and I’m telling you what I think is going on in the world. Whether or not that appeals to you is sort of your call.”

She points to two interviews she conducted with senior Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway in recent weeks. The exchanges were never impolite, but they were certainly tough. In a late-December interview, Maddow appeared to school the presidential counselor in the nuclear-arms race. She also prompted Conway to acknowledge that the Trump transition team had reached out to ABC News after the president-elect suggested that journalist Martha Raddatz had broken out in tears on TV upon learning of his election — a false assertion.

“I actually have high hopes for the willingness of this new administration to put people out to talk,” says Maddow. “I’ve had Kellyanne Conway doing very long — very intense, at times -— interviews with me. I give her credit for coming back and doing a second one after the first.”

PRE-SHOW PREP: Maddow conducts meticulous research for her self-described job of “explaining stuff.”
MIKE MCGREGOR for Variety

Of course, she wants to talk to Trump, whose team, she says, brought up the idea of an interview a few times in the recent past. What would she ask him? “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” She’d also like to land Hillary Clinton and learn her future plans.

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Maddow and MSNBC have good reason to pursue the idea. The cabler has contended with ratings woes and a massive reorientation of its programming strategy in recent years, but Maddow in 2016 attracted the most viewers to her 9 p.m. time period in her history at the network. Indeed, of the 15 most-watched cable-news programs in 2016, the only one not airing on Fox News Channel was hers. The feat might have been expected in 2008, when MSNBC enjoyed a wave of popularity among progressive viewers encouraged by the election of President Obama, and when Maddow had Keith Olbermann as her 8 p.m. lead-in. But in 2016, it’s quite an accomplishment.

The trick now is to keep her viewers tuning in, even as the ardor of some political aficionados begins to dim. To parry with CNN and Fox News, MSNBC has relied less on shouting pundits and worked harder to nab guests who are involved in or experts on the events of the day. Long-form Maddow interviews present “a huge opportunity for us to do real reporting,” says Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president.

Success is not guaranteed. Not everyone wants to spar with Maddow. “I don’t think you go on ‘The Rachel Maddow Show’ without doing a lot of preparation. You cannot wing it,” says Griffin. “She’s going to be smart, and she’s going to ask hard questions.”

But Republicans would do well to meet with her, argues Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “The GOP needs to appear to be speaking to all Americans, and going on MSNBC could help generate that image,” he notes. “Republicans on Maddow’s show won’t likely win over her viewers, but creating rational discussion would be good for all involved.”

On set and off, Maddow bears the demeanor of a graduate student. MSNBC executives liken her office to a library, and note that she spends hours there poring over source materials. She regularly dashes into her New York studio with less than five minutes to go before airtime. Some TV hosts gab with crew or producers during breaks; during one recent broadcast, Maddow spent the commercial hunched over her screen, so focused on prepping for a guest in her next segment that she chose to forgo getting a cosmetic touch-up, despite suffering from a runny nose.

“Republicans on Maddow’s show won’t likely win over her viewers, but creating rational discussion would be good for all involved.”
Jeffrey McCall, DePauw University

She discovered a desire to explain things during post-graduate study, when a series of odd jobs led her to audition to be a “news girl” on WRNX, a small, Massachusetts radio station. She won the job and went from ripping AP wire to meeting with local lawmakers and talking over issues. She left to pursue her doctorate, but after 9/11, she recalls, “I missed the opportunity to explain stuff” — so much so that she called up another Massachusetts station, WRSI, and asked if she could do fill-in shifts on the weekends, even for free. That led to her own morning program, then a stint on Air America before she made the jump to television. Little of it, she says, was planned.

Now she’s facing another intriguing opportunity. Her time-slot rival, Megyn Kelly, has jumped to NBC News from Fox News, leaving Maddow as the only female host on cable news in primetime. She doesn’t anticipate making changes to her show — she didn’t do it when Larry King left the 9 p.m. slot on CNN, she notes, or when Sean Hannity made way for Kelly on Fox News — but she wonders why only one woman is scheduled during the news networks’ most popular time slots at such a point in modern history, when the president-elect has been accused of forcing himself on women. “The American people litigated that when they went to vote in November, but that stuff doesn’t go away,” she says. “To simultaneously have him taking over in Washington and to have women gone from primetime news — it’s just worth noting.”

The world is growing extraordinarily complex, but Maddow already operates on the premise that things aren’t easy. “I have always felt like my job is to chart the waters,” she says. “We are at sea.”

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  1. Chris Snedeker says:

    Thank god for Rachel maddow

  2. Rebecca says:

    I like the information she provides however please stop your “what it’s” I mean what if this or what if that OMG we are not in elementary school. Speculations are just that, non facts. I mean what if trump farts rainbows lol. You don’t need to stoop to low levels like that. I know people start believeinv your what ifs and that spreads false information because anyone can say what if it doesn’t make it a fact. What if all politicians disappear I mean that’s a good what if in my book

  3. Gail Silvester says:

    Leave the president alone. Let him do the job America elected him to do. He’s doing a fantastic job. Praise God for hearing the prayers of the American people

  4. Joseph Colanduono says:

    What a joke! Instead of using the tools she has honed for the past decade or so, Rachel would rather use her anger and bitterness in a devisive manner. There was a time when journalism had a hint of impartiality.
    And what’s with the Richard Lewis ensemble?
    Maybe a touch of Ivanka’s brand will lighten her up a few shades of steam.

  5. I swear by Rachel Maddow, probably one of the few political show hosts that I can rely on for bold and neutral, fact-based news. Also, she is charismatic and makes 40 minutes of political sagas so much fun. The best I could have done is write 2000 word Open Letter to Rachel Maddow, of which she is truly deserving.

  6. norah says:

    I love this show. Rachel is really good at what she does well executed and knowledgeable in her field. Just wonder why the government is so fixed on deporting Mexicans when America has a visa waiver program where nationals of certain countries do not need visa’s to enter America. They are usually the offenders who over stay their visa’s why are they not looking into them. Is it cause Mexico will not pay for the wall

  7. Missy says:

    I love the way she gives the background to the present story. Feb 6,2017 story made my eyebrows rise. Last few weeks have made me fearful of our government and our new administration’s intentions. She’s not an idiot. She does her homework. Any KellyAnn Conway was surprised on how well she does her homework. She didn’t accept double talk for an answer.

  8. Richard Lindsay says:

    Superbowl comment
    Rachel
    Sorry your New England Patriots did not win the SuperBowl, but in applying “Electorial College Math” you know…..where one teams touchdowns ( in this case Red State Atlanta Falcons) count as 7 points and an extra point counts as 2 points, Atlanta actually won by a score of 36 to 34….So Sad Patriots, there is always next year…..just saying…

  9. giganobi says:

    She left you thinking the republucan party was comming to an end when in actuality it was the other way around. She gave her viewers the kiss of death.

    • giganobi says:

      Nobody cares about the sexual stuff, what bothered me about her was the gesture that everyone was safe from harm. It is the inexperience that lead her to just accept compliments and not criticism.

  10. Kathleen Coelho says:

    Rachel is the main reason MSNBC is NOT allowed in our home. No, I am not against gay people; there are rights in this country that I do not understand, unions between same sex partners perplex me, but that is because I am not gay. I don’t pretend to understand, therefore I do not condemn. What I do find appalling is her antics on camera; what IS that? I am speaking about her as someone who we are supposed to take seriously; we do not; how COULD we? Her antics during the Presidential Election were sickening, at best. Please…PLEASE…if you want people to continue watching MSNBC, you must REMOVE this idiot…she is a complete embarrassment to MSNBC, but more importantly, to the United States. If she must stay employed, put her in a back room away from the public eye. I’m serious; this person is a joke to watch. I’m just sayin’…

    • Steve says:

      Yeah, you’re just sayin ‘. SEVEN TIMES. Honestly, did Rachel run over your kitty or something? If you don’t like her, don’t watch her. Problem solved. She doesn’t have to be taken off the air because you have a hate-on for her.

  11. lady if so , you are a despicable person , you have no loyalty to the profession of journalism , you are a shame to this nation , we reject you , and I can tell you this you are so Bs that i will take a sick mind to watch silly show.

  12. Cynthia P. says:

    The TRUTH in an Hour – never miss your show!!!

  13. Gary Douglas says:

    She’s a tough cookie. Knows way more than most of her guests–especially those on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

  14. Mark says:

    Reinvent herself, like Colbert did?

  15. sadierose10 says:

    Measows need to get over herself.

  16. Kaitlyn Serafin says:

    Rachel – please keep up the good work. We are drowning in a sea of stupidity. You provide a life jacket.

  17. Joe Freedom says:

    Propagandist for the party of war. Joey Goebbels has nothing on you. Hitlary took money from hostile anti progessive regimes world wide, yet you wax on about dubious Russian influence in this election? Way back when GW Bush was plotting to spend blood and capital over turning a tin hat dictator, Colin Powell claimed the then 16 intelligence agencies confirmed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The same agencies that brought us Viet Nam. Yeah, the Russians economically the size of Italy, need a Pulitzer for hard hitting journslism in exposing the true form Democrat.

  18. James Mooney says:

    Has Rachel Maddow Lost Her Mind? She’s become War Mad. She wants World War III. Nuts to her! She’s lost it. She’s EVIL. She’s INSANE. I’ll never watch her again.

  19. Bill Scott says:

    Go get ’em Rachel! We don’t get your show but are ardent website followers in Alberta.

  20. Maddow! D@mn auto correct.

  21. suibne says:

    rachel, you are a third rate thinker with a script filled with predetermined falsehoods for ideological purposes….you are done…americans hate you in particular.

  22. J2289 says:

    MSNBC is just another propaganda tool used by the liberal socialist dems. This was proven in the wikileaks emails. I NEVER watch MSNBC!

  23. Tnizzle82 says:

    I like her glasses,I wonder where she got them from.

    • She is the most intelligent, honest woman reporter on TV. Interesting how “negative views” support the fact she is being watched by the “other side”.

      • Kathleen Coelho says:

        Beatrice! How many channels do you watch? ONE? RACHEL is INTELLIGENT? She talk a blue streak and obviously considers herself entertaining, but she is a total fool who should NOT be on air where the rest of the world can see her! She is an embarrassment to our country!

  24. Will Thompson says:

    I feel guilty for enjoying reading this. Grow up stop making me happy.

  25. Dan Frank says:

    I find it interesting that Rachel’s detractors offer little in the way of objective fact based criticism of her show’s content. Rather than making personal attacks on her physical appearance or sexual persuasion, how about noting any false information her show offers. Facts are what counts. She represents the best in journalism on television.

  26. Liz says:

    Rachael Maddow has a formidable intellect, a razor-sharp delivery, a wry sense of humor, a clear and concise ability to convey the most complicated information, and the courage to speak the truth. My personal favorite. Don’t change a thing, Rachael. You are a rare and unique vintage.

    • Kathleen Coelho says:

      DON’T change a thing? How about if she would take that intellect and what you call razor-sharp delivery (and most of us call making a complete fool of herself and the network) and state fact and truth? Did you NOT see her during the Presidential Primaries? Biggest joke on any network! Rare and unique…NOT! lol

    • Mike Wilson says:

      Liz, Nice post but you forgot to attach “sarcastic” at the end.
      Some coo coo’s ot there are liable to believe you. Not many butt some.

  27. Norma Harris says:

    Rachael Maddow is not afraid to speak truth. We look forward to how she backs up what she reports with taped news reports. Please keep on. Thank you

  28. Cindy Moser says:

    Dr. Maddow is awesome and one of the smartest people on TV.

  29. Funniest thing on the idiot box in many years. Madcow’s brings me back to my days experimenting with LSD :)

  30. mike says:

    To Big Balls

    MSNBC dramatically higher rates than the competition. Year to year, MSNBC was up +104% in total viewers and 160% in the demo, far above both CNN (+73% in total viewers and +76% in the demo) and FOX News (+10% in total viewers and +16% in the demo).

  31. Ferretface says:

    Just keep whining… it’s worked out for you so far.

  32. BigBalls says:

    Also no one cares 1 iota about anything any of these ‘people’ think. they just do not count when it comes to thinking part of society. they are a 0.0.

  33. Bettye Jones says:

    Yeah, an overpaid $7M/year clown that somehow passes as legit news

    • Kathleen Coelho says:

      Bettye…I would agree, as clowns are supposed to be funny, but I feel she is a over-paid idiot and a complete embarrassment to the entire country, let alone the network that hired her.

  34. PaulM says:

    Good content drastically abbreviated in order to shoe horn into an increasingly relentless barrage of commercials. Coupled with Rachel’s acquired habit of repeating the same thing 3-4 times in slightly different ways (she must assume her audience is challenged) has made the show un-watchable. Used to be the best show on television….

  35. Paul Paad says:

    Of course she wants to encourage republicans to go on her show. Those would be the only shows that might help boost her ratings.

  36. toughhombre says:

    Maddow can’t reinvent her horrible grimacing face, her Vampira wardrobe, her irritating personality and delivery and, most of all, her out of touch leftist diatribes. The reinvention is a belly laugh.

  37. laxmom3 says:

    As the old saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig…but it’s still a pig.
    She, like most hateful liberals have a selective memory (or are just plain dis-ingenuous on issues) for a favorable outcome to further their socialist agenda. She told her viewers “our president-elect is lying to us.” I don’t ever remember her saying, “democrat presidential nominee, hillary clinton is lying to us,” explain that, rachel.

  38. Moose says:

    There is a reason MSNBC’s ratings are in the toilet and have remained there for years.

    • mike says:

      Mike says:
      Moose, Just in case you can read.
      MSNBC dramatically higher rates than the competition. Year to year, MSNBC was up +104% in total viewers and 160% in the demo, far above both CNN (+73% in total viewers and +76% in the demo) and FOX News (+10% in total viewers and +16% in the demo).

      • Kathleen Coelho says:

        Mike…just in case YOU CANNOT read: It would be hard to imagine a news event better tailored to MSNBC’s Venn diagram of “lean forward” liberals and “place for politics” political junkies. Yet when Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive 2016 presidential nominee, held a news conference about her private email use last week — a media frenzy that functioned, albeit inadvertently, as the informal launch to her highly anticipated campaign — less than 13 percent of the total cable news audience was tuned to the network.

        The low turnout wasn’t a fluke: Year-to-date, MSNBC’s daytime viewership is down 21 percent overall and 41 percent in the coveted 25-to-54-year-old demographic, putting it in fourth place behind Fox News, CNN and CNN’s sister network HLN. Its prime-time ratings are down 24 percent and 42 percent, respectively. In both daytime and prime time, MSNBC is bringing in its smallest share of the demo since 2005, the year before Keith Olbermann’s scorched-earth admonitions of the Bush administration ushered in the current era of Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton.

  39. Stinger says:

    Don’t bother Maddow, you can’t re-invent garbage. Garbage is garbage no matter how you spin it.

  40. Drluggit says:

    The thing about Rachel is her unwillingness to be caustic to her liberal guests. It simply makes her appear hyper partisan, and why should we grant her any credibility for that? Her approach is, not a lib? Bad. Treat like dirt. If you’re a lib, oh your the greatest gift possible.

    Well, that isn’t impartial. It’s advocacy. Demanding that folks accept it is demagoguery. Believing in the righteousness of it is sophistry.

    Rachel, hon, we get it. You didn’t come out the way you wanted. Most folks reconcile that by the time they’re 12. Being behind the curve doesn’t make you much more than below average.

  41. Tymtrvlr says:

    His philosophy is, if you don’t report, it didn’t happen, and if rightwing reporters do report it, he demonizes them. America, are you that dumb down that you can’t see your being brain washed by these useless idiots that keep telling you lies until you believe them?

  42. She does love to twist words doesn’t she? I mean if you really listen you can hear the manipulation. Well thats if you can stand it! Another screwed up lesbian trying to stay relevant.

  43. Arthur Machado says:

    If she doesn’t like our President lying to us than why did she defend President Obama on the “like your doctor keep your doctor, like your plan keep your plan comments? Two of the worst of the many he told.

  44. Mary Odaca says:

    Very interesting commentary here. Nothing to do with content. Guess I won’t subscribe to Variety.

  45. Fred says:

    Who gives a damn what any of these people think?

  46. John Duresky says:

    Hillary lost for three main reasons. (1) Hubris. She and the people in the campaign HQ did not listen to the people on the ground in WI, OH, PA, and MI who were pleading for more help on the ground to help get out the vote in those states. That is what is commonly called a “stupid way to campaign.” This same hubris led her to waste time trying to win reliably safe red states like AZ, GA, going there even late in the game to help increase her predicted electoral landslide. Michael Moore saw this all coming a mile away. (2) Hollywood. Confusing Hollywood support for American support was a big mistake. A little less glitzy fundraising and working to get elite celebrity endorsements, and a little more effort getting the support of unemployed Joe Sixpack in the Midwest would have gone a long way. (3) The private server and private email accounts she had set up while SOS. Dumb! Change any one of those three and on Friday you would have the swearing in of Hillary Clinton. Just a poorly run campaign from start to finish because they got the basics of it so wrong. I’m a Trump supporter, so I can only say Thank God she didn’t do those things differently.

  47. Eileen Oliver says:

    I love your show what i like the most is you give food for thought , your show is the only one that i really like Keep up the great work you do

  48. cramml says:

    People will seek out the talking head personality that reeenforces their personal beliefs. I suggest that people give the next president a fair shake. I’m not saying accept him blindly, but at least permit the conversation that he might be doing good things for the people of this country. In this way we might open a more productive and honest dialogue between us.

  49. MichMike says:

    A liar calling someone else a liar. Isn’t that like a double negative?

  50. Stopped watching Fox because of my total disgust with Trump. Like MSNBC very much. Except for Rachel. Lecture, lecture, lecture. Her interviews are either in glorious adoration of her guest(s) or harassing her victim until she gets the answer she wants. Waiting for one of those inglorious bastards to say shove it up your ass, Rachel.

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