Is There Life After Maddow?

Alex Wagner
MSNBC anchor Alex Wagner, who will succeed Rachel Maddow. Photo: Paul Morigi/WireImage
Dylan Byers
June 29, 2022

Five years ago, in the still early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, when the news industry was riding high on the nation’s endless fascination and angst regarding the former Apprentice star’s rise to power, then-CNN president Jeff Zucker sounded a note of caution. In a Q&A session with staff at the network’s Los Angeles bureau, where I was a reporter, Zucker noted that the Trump-fueled surge in ratings that had been so lucrative for CNN and its rivals was ultimately an oasis in the desert, a mere mirage of hope amid the otherwise irreversible secular decline of the linear television business. 

After all, the micro news event wasn’t enough to overtake the macro-economic forces: cord-cutting, the rise of mobile, disintermediated content, the profusion of affinity-driven brands, and, frankly, the fact that TV news was a hallmark of the Boomer life experience that just didn’t fundamentally translate to Millennials and Gen Zers. (Trump, himself, was living proof of this fact.) When Trump left office, Zucker intimated, the ratings would fall back down to earth and then continue their downward trend. 

This poignant assessment, which I would hear echoed by other news executives in more private settings, was offered up by Trump himself later that year. “Newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there,” he said in December 2017, “because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes.”

The bubble did indeed burst, and quickly, on the heels of Trump’s reluctant departure from the White House, with adverse effects across print, digital and television outlets. But while Fox News has managed to maintain and even expand its long-standing dominance in cable, thanks to its powerful influence among Republicans, the downward trend has very much resumed for both CNN and MSNBC. 

CNN’s average viewership in the most recent quarter declined by 31 percent from last year, in both total day and primetime, according to new numbers from Nielsen. MSNBC’s average viewership declined by 34 percent in daytime and 40 percent in primetime. And these staggering losses, which are taking place amid an unrelenting cavalcade of historic global and domestic news events, can hardly be written off as part of a quadrennial, in-between-election-cycles slump. In the advertiser-relevant 25-to-54-year-old demo, the two networks are back down to levels not seen since at least 2014, the year after Zucker took over CNN. MSNBC averaged a mere 77,000 viewers in the demo in total day, its worst showing since 2003. 

The state of play may help to explain why both new CNN C.E.O. Chris Licht and MSNBC president Rashida Jones are making such an aggressive effort to lower ratings expectations for their respective networks and shift the focus to more subjective and less quantifiable measures of success, such as fostering smarter conversations or bringing a more diverse set of voices onto the air. Licht, a famously competitive executive producer who used to obsess over minute-by-minutes, has told CNN employees that “he’s not here to focus on ratings,” and that his boss David Zaslav sees CNN as “a reputational asset” rather than purely a revenue generator. And it is presumably why Jones has been so careful to manage expectations surrounding the elevation of Alex Wagner, an incredibly smart and very likable green room veteran, who will now be Rachel Maddow’s Tuesday-Friday successor at 9 p.m. 

In an interview with Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo, Jones said she was “not looking for someone to come in and mimic Rachel’s performance or success.” She continued: “Our metric isn’t Rachel’s numbers or bust. It’s more about: How do we continue to add to the conversation? How do we get unique new voices to add to the conversation?” (Jones and Wagner were not available for further interviews, a spokesperson said.)

“Lowering Expectations Isn’t a Strategy”

Making cable news smarter, less polarizing and more inclusive are all admirable ambitions, and suggest that a sincere, civic-minded idealism still endures even in the very for-profit media industry. But the effort to downplay ratings is also an acknowledgment that the hegemons can’t win at the cutthroat game they’ve been playing, and now have to flip the script. It reminds me a bit of how companies like Condé Nast, which once ruthlessly replaced editors and publishers on a dime for missing ambitious targets, or simply just because, now talk about themselves in the lingua franca of McKinsey: being more efficient and integrated, et cetera.

This civic-minded move toward centrism offers a convenient narrative for networks that are approaching historic ratings lows, but it’s ultimately a flawed strategy. As a matter of fact, ratings do matter, even in the brave new multiplatform—you get a streaming show!, you get a podcast!—ecosystem. In recent years, CNN and MSNBC have turned roughly $1 billion and $500 million in annual profit, respectively, sources with knowledge of the networks’ financial performances have told me (Fox News is in the ballpark of $2 billion). They get there through a combination of advertising revenue (which definitely depends on ratings) and affiliate fees (which, over time, depend on at least a threshold of ratings). And even if you accept the premise that CNN and MSNBC are simply reputational assets for Warner Bros. Discovery and Comcast, respectively, which may one day sweeten the deal for potential HBO Max or Peacock subscribers, it’s hard for any network to have a reputation—or, at least, the reputation it wants—if no one is watching.

Presumably, Licht and Jones know this and are simply trying to do the best they can with the hands they’ve been dealt—essentially to manage the industry’s decline gingerly, without ever saying that they are doing so, and finding a way to make their units align with the mothership’s overall strategy. But the bluff is apparent to their colleagues in the industry. “Lowering expectations isn’t a strategy,” one veteran television executive said of Jones’ remarks about the Maddow succession. “Who launches a show and says it’s never going to succeed like her predecessor?”

The selection of Wagner similarly appears to reflect the limited cards at MSNBC’s disposal. In her interview with Pompeo, Jones said that MSNBC has “an incredible bench.” That’s an odd thing to say when discussing a role that went to someone whose previous show had been canceled in 2015 and wasn’t even on the bench until a few months ago. (Speaking of that bench, a few MSNBC insiders wondered how many times the network intended to snub Ali Velshi, the extremely hardworking journeyman who also didn’t get Brian Williams’ chair on The 11th Hour.) 

But, more to the point, the widespread conventional wisdom among 30 Rock insiders and TV news veterans is that, when it comes to Maddow, MSNBC never had a bench. One explanation for that is that Maddow is nonpareil: an authentic, distinctive, once-in-a-generation star with the self-confidence and gravitas to shape and influence politics and culture. (All true). The less forgiving explanation is that MSNBC got complacent with her success and her ability to carry the primetime lineup and didn’t bother to do the hard, years-long work of cultivating her replacement. (Also true.)

So, enter Wagner, arguably the best available option. She is unquestionably brilliant, very capable in the host’s chair, very acceptable to the MSNBC faithful, possibly a draw for younger audiences, and well-liked by colleagues and staff. She is also probably even amenable to being big-footed by Maddow in the event that the network’s reigning star wants to step in on a big election night or State of the Union address, an option still available to her, I’m told. 

But Wagner has never moved the needle on television (her previous MSNBC daytime show was canceled in 2015; she went on to co-host The Circus on Showtime after Mark Halperin got canceled) and perhaps lacks the cutthroat, gladiatorial tenacity that has historically been required to compete in primetime. Perhaps she finds a way to break through the noise; perhaps MSNBC drifts into irrelevance while being managed for profitability. 

At the end of the day, the industry experts that I speak to have unanimously and simultaneously praised Wagner while criticizing the move to anoint her. After all, elevating a lesser star to the heart of prime time reflects a diminishing ambition, no matter how civic-minded and relatively centrist it might be. For decades, cable news operated with the consensual hallucination that the networks had to scale their ambition to compete for eyeballs, even if each hour of programming generally replicated the one before it in meaningful ways. This shared ambition fueled astronomical talent salaries, large production teams, huge travel budgets, and a news-and-fluffing industrial complex. Now, it seems, that has at last faded. If Maddow can be replaced by Wagner, each and every other star could be replaced by someone less well-known, less expensive, and less likely to garner ratings.

In many ways, this is one of those small personnel moves that reverberates through an industry and foreshadows the future. Indeed, Jeff Shell and Zaslav are ostensibly operating using the correct tactics—managing their news assets to realpolitik decline amid a shifting landscape, and focusing their energies on their larger entertainment properties and rolling them into a unified streaming property. But it’s a delicate balance. Ratings may matter less than they once did in a multi-platform universe, but they are often a synonym for relevance, the key and unspoken K.P.I. in media. When Si Newhouse shuffled his executives, the brands were larger than life. When they were managed for the decline of the magazine industry, they did just that. Indeed, a tack toward the center will, if anything, make MSNBC seem a lot more like CNN. I’m sure there is a private equity executive imagining something on a white board somewhere. 

Meanwhile, the ball is now in Licht’s court for 9 p.m. Perhaps the most pressing question is how he interprets the hour and what he intends do with it, and whether he still sees 9 p.m. as a platform for a competitive star (or set of stars?) around whom he can build the new, smarter, less-polarizing CNN brand—with an eye toward elevating the national conversation and doing responsible journalism, yes, but also driving ratings and revenue, and perhaps holding off cable’s irreversible decline for just a few years longer. And then the question, of course, is who might that star be?