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Alex Wagner Wins MSNBC’s 9 P.M. Slot, Will Succeed Rachel Maddow

Alex Wagner the Circus
Cam Glendenning/Courtesy of Showtime

For years, Lawrence O’Donnell had the tricky job of following Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Now that task falls to Alex Wagner.

Wagner, an MSNBC veteran who left the NBCUniversal-backed cable-news outlet in 2015 to try her hand at other pursuits, will seize the reins of the network’s all-important 9 p.m. hour four days a week — the first person given the job on a permanent basis since Maddow ceded most of the slot earlier this year.

The new program, which will be named at a later date, will debut on August 16 and air Tuesdays through Fridays. Maddow, who has pulled back from on-air duties to focus on an array of other projects for NBCU, will continue to host “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Mondays at 9 p.m. She is also likely to turn up in MSNBC’s programming at moments of great news import and did so last Friday when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

Wagner has “got something to say,” notes Rashida Jones, president of MSNBC, in an interview. But Wagner isn’t going to simply spout of on the issues of the day, she adds. “She pulls in perspective. She brings in some of the context throughout her discussion,” says Jones. “She knows politics. She knows everything from foreign policy to culture.” Wagner is among a handful of Asian-Americans to host a cable-news program in primetime., Former CNN correspondent Joie Chen anchored the primetime show “The World Today” with Wolf Blitzer and Jim Moret in the late 1990s and early 2000s,and Connie Chung anchored a CNN newsmagazine in parts of 2002 and 2003. Wagner is expected to work across television, digital and print and to contribute to special coverage for MSNBC.

MSNBC is betting that Wagner can gather the sizable live audiences that advertisers and cable distributors crave — just months ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, an event that is expected to boost viewership after a downturn following President Biden’s election in 2020. While Maddow’s appearances in June to discuss hearings held by the January 6 Committee have fared well, last month CNN’s primetime schedule outperformed MSNBC’s in the critical 25-to-54 viewership demographic that determines what advertisers pay for news programming. CNN also won that category in primetime in the first quarter of the year. MSNBC has typically outdrawn CNN in terms of overall viewers.

“The Rachel Maddow Show” captured $45 million in advertising in the first ten months of 2021, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending. Among the show’s biggest supporters last year were Procter & Gamble’s Tide detergent and Mazda.

In Wagner, MSNBC has as anchor who embodies traits similar to those of her time-slot predecessor. She is an author and writer and has tested her mettle across several content formats. Some TV viewers may know her from some time she spent as the co-anchor of CBS’ Saturday-morning news program. Others may recognize her for her role on the Showtime political documentary series, “The Circus.” She is the author of “Futureface,” a memoir about identity and immigration in an America with a cultural makeup that is in flux, and spent four years as the editor-in-chief of The Fader, covering music and culture. Wagner is represented by WME, which played a role in negotiating her new MSNBC position.

“I’m honored to be anchoring a key hour of television in such a critical time for American democracy,” Wagner said in a statement. “In many ways, the stakes have never been higher, and there’s no better place to explore this moment than MSNBC. I’m thrilled to be coming home.”

Some network observers believe Wagner has been a candidate for the new role since she returned to MSNBC in February as a senior analyst and fill-in anchor. “We had a wide pool of possibilities,” says Jones, adding that Wagner “was someone I was interested in very early on.” The executive declined to name other candidates considered for the role. She says she mulled options within MSNBC as well as “many people externally to get to where we are.”

Wagner led the noontime “Now With Alex Wagner” between 2011 and 2015, and joined MSNBC as part of a move to present more programming with a progressive lens. She left as MSNBC placed new emphasis on covering breaking news in daytime hours. Her return coincides with a period of tinkering at the network and a heavier reliance on hosts who offer analysis or perspective rather than delivering the news of the day.

In an era when more traditional TV viewers are streaming more of their favorite shows on demand, predicting an uptick in ratings is tough. But Jones says she will be looking more intently at other markers of performance. “The ratings are not the top metric for me,” she says. Instead, says Jones, she will consider questions such as “Are we adding something to the conversation? Are we bringing a deeper understanding? Are people coming to us to cut through the noise and the rhetoric and understand what is happening? With any new show coming out of the gate, just using ratings as a measure is unfortunate.”

A rotation of anchors will continue to fill the 9 p.m. slot until Wagner’s program launches in August, with Maddow holding forth on Monday evenings.