Rachel Maddow: How This Wonky-Tonk Woman Won TV

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

MSNBC's primetime superstar delivers news with agenda, but not hysteria, as her style of civil political discussion reveals a turning tide (even Roger Ailes says Fox News has gone too far) that may help stem cable's ratings erosion in an increasingly unpleasant political environment.

"Thank you for coming," says Rachel Maddow to a visiting reporter. "Why are we doing this?"

It's the last Friday in September, and we are walking briskly -- at 5-foot-11, Maddow always moves at a near-jog -- toward the elevator on the fourth floor of her office at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters.

The MSNBC host is somewhat bemused and clearly curious as to why her visitor is here today. Attention is not something she seeks out or is entirely comfortable with, which may sound disingenuous for someone in an industry thick with titanic egos. But she does not view her show as a glamour perch; something to be parlayed into superficial celebrity friendships or hosting gigs at star-stuffed charity events.

"I don't value a TV show for the sake of having a TV show," explains Maddow. "The idea was to do something cool with a platform that reaches a lot of people."

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The Rachel Maddow Show, which was launched after Countdown With Keith Olbermann in the midst of the wild and woolly 2008 presidential campaigns, is now the No. 1 program on MSNBC, which has surpassed CNN in primetime for eight consecutive quarters (but still lags behind Fox News). In September, The Rachel Maddow Show earned its first Emmy -- in the inaugural category of news discussion and analysis -- for her reporting from Afghanistan. If she is still worried about reaching lots of people, her upcoming cameo in George Clooney's  Oscar-contending The Ides of March shows that her profile is expanding well beyond wonky news circles.           

MSNBC executives are banking on Maddow (along with fellow hosts including Lawrence O'Donnell, Ed Schultz and most recently Al Sharpton) to expand the network's brand in a way that has momentum beyond the current political season. Unlike Fox News -- which is still the main cable news destination for Americans from the center to the far right -- or CNN -- which sees its ratings spike with big breaking news events -- MSNBC's fortunes are tied to its primetime personalities. And Maddow is its marquee personality.

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Although she eschews the more vituperative combativeness that characterized the final years of Olbermann's tenure at MSNBC and has not talked to Olbermann since he abruptly broke with the network in January, she has become the new ambassador of the brand that he helped build. "Rachel is informed, she does her homework, she preps better and longer than anyone, she is fair and always smart," says MSNBC president Phil Griffin, who has been in his role since July 2008. "And that's a big part of defining this network."

The 38-year-old former Air America radio host -- the first openly gay person to host a primetime news program -- is a progressive voice that eviscerates with facts, not pejoratives. She also courts Republicans, though most of them won't come on her show. A poster girl for civilized give-and-take in an increasingly unpleasant and contentious political climate, she has won allegiance as bitter partisanship seems to not only have stalled the nation's political process, but cable news ratings as well.

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It's no coincidence that Maddow's kill-them-with-kindness brand-defining dominance at MSNBC comes at this moment. Fox News chairman Roger Ailes admitted recently that the network has embarked an a "course correction" and that departed host Glenn Beck "had become a bit of a branding issue" by doing things like calling President Obama a racist.

"She's unique," says Matt Delzell, director of entertainment for branding agency The Marketing Arm, of Maddow's broadening appeal. "She's not afraid to criticize liberals despite being a liberal. That uniqueness and her underdog appeal draw people in, regardless of whether they agree with her opinions."

Still, Maddow strives to keep a low profile. "My agent [Jean Sage of Napoli Management Group] has a standing order from me, if I am asked to do something that is not my TV show, the answer is no. I can't [even] do the one thing I'm paid to do," she says of her anchor skills, revealing a rare glimpse of insecurity.

There was one recent extracurricular exception. A script for The Ides of March on her office bookshelf prompts a query and Maddow tells how she came to film the obligatory news anchor cameo for the film.

"My agent was like, 'George Clooney called. I know, it's no.' And I was like, 'Oh really, George Clooney? It's really hard to say no to him.' So there I am, I'm a Hollywood sucker. I'll do anything for George Clooney."

On this day, Maddow is frantically working to finish writing segments for that night's live 9 p.m. show. She is in the office at noon and writes sometimes up until 15 minutes before air. "I have bad time-management skills," she admits. And a photo shoot for this story that is already vexing her cuts into her prep time. The stylist has brought several looks for Maddow; one is an Alessandro Dell'Acqua tuxedo suit, Ralph Lauren white-collared shirt and vintage black and white spectator shoes. Maddow smiles and says: "I'll try it. But because I am mannish looking, when other people try to dress me, it doesn't work. The whole androgynous thing goes away and I just end up looking like an ugly man or a 14-year-old boy."

Clearly, Maddow does not fit the visual stereotype of the female TV anchor -- beauty-pageant looks, short skirts, towering heels. But the time she saves by not spending it on her appearance she gets to spend on the substance of her show.


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