Alex Wagner Talks About Her Debut As Permanent MSNBC Primetime Host: “This Is Going To Be A Different Show”

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When Alex Wagner debuts her new MSNBC show on Tuesday, she will be taking on an unusual arrangement that came about following Rachel Maddow’s contract renewal with NBCUniversal.

While Maddow, the network’s top-rated personality, will continue to host her show on Mondays, Wagner will fill the 9 p.m. PT slot the rest of the week.

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Comparisons are inevitable, but while Alex Wagner Tonight will share the same executive producer with The Rachel Maddow Show, Cory Gnazzo, and Maddow has figured in promotions for the debut, Wagner said, “This is going to be a different show.”

“We are trying to figure out the ways we can carry through some of the incredible intellectual rigor and informative analysis that Rachel has established in the 9 p.m. hour, and how we can make a through line with what we do Tuesday through Friday, and also add in some new elements that are reflective of my experience,” Wagner said in an interview with Deadline. “It’s been a lot of brainstorming, a lot of meetings. We’re not throwing spaghetti against the wall. It’s a more deliberative process that that.”

In selecting Wagner, 44, the network is tapping someone in sync with MSNBC’s progressive bent, but with a different background from Maddow’s. Wagner will be the only Asian American to host a primetime cable news show, but she also has had an eclectic career in journalism, including stints as editor in chief at music and culture magazine Fader, contributor to The Atlantic, co-host of CBS This Morning Saturday and co-host and executive producer of Showtime’s The Circus.

She also has served as executive director of Not On Our Watch, the nonprofit set up to monitor and call attention to mass atrocities, and authored the book FutureFace: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging, which looked at her own family history to examine immigration and identity.

Having formerly hosted MSNBC’s daytime Now with Alex Wagner, she returned to the network in February as senior political analyst and guest anchor, including filling in for Maddow.

“I think the best shows are reflective of each host’s personality, and I hope that this show is reflective of my personality and I hope that the audience is responsive,” Wagner said. “There is no one else like Rachel Maddow. Woe be to those who try to mimic her style, and I am certainly not going to be one of them.”

MSNBC’s choice

The Maddow on Mondays, Wagner on Tuesday-Fridays format may be a bit different for viewers accustomed to seeing their favorite personalities night after night, but it reflects the demands on news channels to retain brand names while trying to cultivate new stars.

Andrew Tyndall, the media analyst, said that in picking Wagner, MSNBC is trying to minimize the loss of Maddow, its top-rated show, on the other nights of the week. He sees the network strategy as “trying not to rock the boat. [Wagner] is a known, is a quantity. They know what they are getting.” (Keith Olbermann, the former MSNBC host, claimed that he had been in talks for the hour, but Maddow nixed the idea. The network denied the account.)

The network was not left with a choice. Maddow signed a new contract last year and was insistent on cutting back on her weeknight schedule, leaving her room to work on special projects and series but still remain with the company. “If the choice is let Maddow go, they can’t afford to do that,” Tyndall said.

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There is a viewership falloff from the night the Maddow hosts vs. the rest of the week, when a rotating series of personalities have filled in. In July, The Rachel Maddow Show averaged 2.39 million viewers, enough to break into the top five shows in the hour, while the rest of the week, called MSNBC Prime, averaged 1.42 million. Still, MSNBC Tonight beat CNN Tonight, which has featured a rotating series of hosts since Chris Cuomo was fired. In the 25-54 demo, the audiences get much smaller. Rachel Maddow averaged 230,000 while MSNBC Prime posted 134,000, the latter trailing CNN Tonight which had 144,000. Leading the hour, as it has been for some time, is Fox News’ Hannity, which averaged 2.53 million total viewers and 343,000 in the 25-54 demo.

Tyndall also said it would be “unfair” to judge Wagner’s success against Maddow’s audience, given the situation. MSNBC president Rashida Jones, who was unavailable for comment, told Vanity Fair last month that “Rachel has been doing this for a long time, and it takes time to build an audience in that way. 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?”

Wagner told Deadline that “inevitably the show itself will be an evolution. The way we look the first night will look different from the way we look six months later, will look different from the way we look six years later.” She suggested that there will likely be more segments in the field, as well as more interview segments, which were central features when she worked on the documentary-style magazine series The Circus.

She joined the show in 2018 and said that “I truly don’t think I would be the journalist I am today has I not had that experience on that show.” But given the time constraints of doing a four-night-a-week show, Wagner said that she has to leave The Circus.

John Heilemann, Alex Wagner and Mark McKinnon talk about “The Circus” at the Television Critics Association in 2019. - Credit: (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
John Heilemann, Alex Wagner and Mark McKinnon talk about “The Circus” at the Television Critics Association in 2019. - Credit: (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

(Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

“I come to this with a slightly different background from a lot of other cable news hosts,” she said. “I spend a lot of time in the field, and I hope to bring that experience and some of that DNA to the show. I cut my teeth in cultural journalism, and so I hope our show would have space for voices outside the political mainframe, whether those are authors or directors or poets. I hope we can find some space to have a different cross-section of voices, not just because I think that’s interesting to me, but I think that that’s important in these times. We try and better understand where we are as a country and how we’ve gotten here.”

Among her notable recent interviews — and one that she calls among her most challenging — was with Florida lawmaker Anthony Sabatini, who opposed vaccine mandates. The exchange, airing last September on The Circus, was a bit of a verbal joust. Wagner said, “There are people that say, if the federal government doesn’t step in in the event of mass death in America, a widely transmissible virus that is laying waste to the economy, that is shuttering schools and businesses…” “What world are you living in?” Sabatini responded.

Wagner said of the exchange, “It’s very challenging talking to people who have viewpoints that seem woefully untethered to reality.”

Wagner was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and she and her husband, chef Sam Kass, who worked in Barack Obama’s administration, have two children. While MSNBC’s choice of her as host is in line with their primetime progressive bent, Wagner talked of featuring segments that are especially important and personal to her, including climate change, as well immigration and race, the latter of which were central themes in her book.

“Just that fundamental question of how Americans tell ourselves who we are — that’s really the crux of the debate in a lot of ways,” she said. “That is the central theme I was exploring in the book, and I think it’s absolutely going to be central to the show that we put on the air.”

She also thinks that a favorite talking point on the right — Critical Race Theory — hasn’t been taken seriously enough by Democrats on how it is being used as a “political cudgel.”

Such cultural flash points could be subjects for the show, she said, but “we want to do it in a way that is accurate, and we want to do it in a way that is going to present the truth, but we can’t pretend that this entire debate and that this entire political strategy isn’t unfolding in races across the country.”

Rival on the right

Wagner has been especially critical of Fox News, which dominates cable primetime. In a story for The Atlantic in 2020, she wrote, “In previous years, Fox could claim credit for Republican intransigence on immigration reform and the party’s willful denial of climate change. Today, Fox plays a significant role in stoking fear that it may be time for a second American civil war.”

There is a bit history of cable news hosts going after each other — often to their mutual benefit. Filling in for Chris Hayes in February, Wagner did a segment on Tucker Carlson, and she doesn’t rule out more segments on Fox News for her show.

“I think everybody should keep an eye on what’s happening on Fox News,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that when information is out there that is not true, that we as journalists are purveyors of the truth. So am I going to spend all my time talking about Tucker Carlson? Listen, there is enough happening in the world that is important to cover, that one has to make choices, and I’m not saying this to get into some cable tit for tat. But Fox has has a profound effect on American democracy, and it’s important to understand what is happening over there.”

Yet isn’t she just preaching to the choir? Since Wagner last hosted an MSNBC show, much has changed in politics and media, but the trendlines are still there: Audiences increasingly live in their own bubbles of information. Absent a major breaking news event, commentary, analysis and opinion have proven to be what works in cable news primetime. Fox News hosts are routinely called out by critics for trafficking in distortions and stoking fears and resentments, but Maddow also has taken some heat, perhaps most prominently from the Washington Post‘s Eric Wemple, who challenged her coverage of the Steele Dossier.

Meanwhile, Nexstar venture NewsNation, which launched in 2020 as a just-the-facts unbiased network, gets a fraction of the audience.

The January 6th Committee hearings have shown the extent to which Donald Trump’s supporters believed that the election was stolen, embracing not just the then-president’s words but messages in social and right-wing media.

Asked how her show will break out of the news bubble, Wagner points to what she has written in The Atlantic about the embrace of conspiracy theories on the right. “It’s incredibly distressing to talk to people on the ground and realize that a third to nearly half of this country is living in a parallel universe,” she said. “And I think the urgency of the hour is figuring out how to dismantle, or at least undercut a system that has effectively spun a web of lies for the American public, and it has had an incredibly deleterious effect on American democracy. It’s the $1 trillion question, and I’m not entirely sure how we answer it, except that we keep pushing for the truth, and we keep asking people, and challenging their beliefs if they’re founded on lies.”

Alex WagnerThere is no one else like Rachel Maddow. Woe be to those who try to mimic her style, and I am certainly not going to be one of them.

Over the next month, she said to expect extensive coverage of the midterms, as well as the additional January 6th hearings and the committee’s final report.

As for highlighting or featuring voices on the right on her show, Wagner said, “We are a two-party system, and that is not going anywhere. One of those parties has changed dramatically, and I think in a dangerous fashion over the last decade. And it is up to us to chronicle that because it affects Democrats and independents equally. I think our audience will come to understand the issues in and around the Republican Party, and they’ll hear about those issues from conservatives and Republicans themselves. They’ll also hear analysis and perspective on what’s going on from people who aren’t Republicans. This isn’t going to be a one-party show.”

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