MSNBC Bets on Cool, Wonky in Lineup Shift

If you think about it, MSNBC has been flying by the seat of its pants a bit for more than two years, since the abrupt exit of Keith Olbermann, whose combative style of liberal commentary had come to define the network as a progressive counterpoint to Fox News.

With the promotion of Chris Hayes to the 8 p.m. slot — replacing Ed Schultz, who moves to the weekends — the network has officially bet on a new model of a modern major talkshow host: The cool, wonky stylings of Rachel Maddow.

Maddow, of course, was spun out of Olbermann’s rib, just as Hayes — before his cable news rebirth, a writer for such publications as The Nation and The New Republic — got his TV start opining on Olbermann’s “Countdown” show. Still, Maddow is a cooler commodity, more prone to understated dissection and arched eyebrows in skewering Republicans than Olbermann’s fire-breathing special comments.

MSNBC initially replaced Olbermann by sliding a somewhat reluctant Lawrence O’Donnell into the 8 p.m. slot, with Schultz at 10 p.m. The network later surmised (correctly, I’d argue) that Maddow and O’Donnell were a more compatible fit, literally giving the latter “The Last Word” in its nightly lineup.

The odd duck, seemingly, was always Schultz, whose form of populist bluster — honed on talkradio — always felt at odds with the programs that followed. Even his intro to the show — telling viewers, “Let’s get to work” — had a forced quality to it, demonstrating not everyone in radio is particularly suited to TV.

Hayes, by contrast, in his guest hosting and analytical stints, comes much closer to the Maddow brand of political analysis. Items are chewed over with a wry sense of bemusement — more in the vein of “Aren’t these people silly?” than the “Shame on you, sir” bombast that often characterized Olbermann’s comments, or Schultz’s “Aw shucks” approach to championing the middle class and labor.

Even if his political views are on the opposite end of the spectrum, Schultz’s style is actually much more suited to Fox than MSNBC. With the promotion of Hayes, the Comcast-owned network has brought a more cohesive tone to its lineup, and not incidentally, made itself look younger (at 34, Hayes is Schultz’s junior by a quarter-century), which is never considered to be a bad thing in television, even if the news audience generally skews older than either of them.

In its coverage of the story, the New York Times suggested the switch is “predicated on the belief that MSNBC can win a wider audience with Mr. Hayes than it did with Mr. Schultz.” But this has less to do with expanding the pool of viewers than refining it — making the MSNBC lineup a bit younger, potentially more upscale and clearly more compatible.

As for Olbermann, still on the sidelines after his Current TV gig, he couldn’t resist taking a jab at his old haunt, Tweeting about the churn that has characterized MSNBC since his departure, and wishing Hayes good luck.

The host is to be forgiven for highlighting the legacy of his departure and the long shadow he has cast, but with this latest move, MSNBC finally appears to be finally putting him in the rear-view mirror.

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