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.

The Rachel Maddow Show premiered on Sept. 8, 2008. It was the Monday after the Republican National Convention introduced Palin and her "you betcha" brand of populism to an electorate already in full swoon over Barack Obama.  It was an auspicious beginning for Maddow. On her very first night on the air, she beat Larry King Live in the ratings. By that time, the CNN anchor's heyday was already in the rearview mirror. He would sign off in December 2010 to be replaced by the current occupant, Piers Morgan, three weeks later. By her third night on the air, Maddow had surpassed tune-in for her big-bat lead-in: Countdown with Keith Olbermann (635,000 to 519,000), in the all-important 25-54 demographic upon which most news programming is sold. Her ratings would come back down to earth; but she would finish her first full quarter on the air No. 2 in the 9 p.m. time slot in both total viewers (1.67 million) and the demo (606,000), behind perennial leader Sean Hannity on Fox News. It would be the best ratings performance in the 9 p.m. hour in MSNBC's history.

Olbermann had been waging his own on-air war against the Bush administration since the start of the Iraq War in 2003. And by 2008, the country's political center had shifted left and MSNBC had the wind at its back. Maddow had been making guest appearances on the network as far back as 2005, when she was a frequent guest on Tucker Carlson's The Situation and she became a regular contributor to the network's 2008 presidential primary coverage where she was paired with another arch conservative, Pat Buchanan. She began to fill in for Olbermann in April 2008.

"She was certainly as well-informed as anybody we had on the air," says Olbermann. "She certainly knew more about every one of those topics than I did. But there was also a mirthful quality to her. You have to have some--not antipathy to the medium--but some kind of suspicion of it combined with a willingness to mock it to really succeed."

An eight-day stint as substitute host of Countdown in July 2008 made it abundantly clear that Maddow was host material.

"We put her in Keith's slot and she held the number," says Griffin. "No one had ever held that number before." By her fifth night on Countdown, Griffin had made the decision she was going on in the hour after, and a little over a month later, on Aug. 20, MSNBC made an official announcement. More than three years in, Maddow still beats CNN in the time slot, though her show was down 15 percent in September year-over-year. And her lead-in, O'Donnell's Last Word, has lost ground since inheriting the slot from Olbermann.

Some of that could be due to the swing of the political pendulum; two years into a presidency marked by sinking approval ratings, a faltering global economy and record unemployment, MSNBC is no longer riding a wave of Obama mania. With the rise of the Tea Party, general disenchantment with the president and a resurgence of Republican vigor, she is peddling into the winds of a rightward shift in the nation's political sentiments. But she still has a solid base, consistently delivering  close to a million viewers a night at 9 p.m., and with nearly 2 million Twitter followers and more than 400,000 Facebook fans.

Maddow may have been part of a one-two punch with Olbermann, but she is not aping her former colleague’s combative style. If Olbermann set upon Republican foes with a big stick, Maddow offers an olive branch.

“I think we’re a healthier place today,” says Griffin. "We don’t want ugliness. We don’t want pettiness and name-calling. We want smart, thoughtful discussion with a point of view.”

The door to Maddow's office bursts open and she sprints down the hall toward the elevator. It is exactly 8:45 p.m. fifteen minutes before she must be in her seat at Studio 3A. Less than a minute later, she is in the makeup chair on the third floor. This is a nightly ritual.

Maddow's time-management issues are a by-product of her perfectionist work ethic and what Wolff terms her "bad radio habits."

"She used to have a three-hour radio show every day," he says, by way of explaining that she orders up more stories that can ever fit into a 44-minute TV hour. "We produce more TV than ever gets on the air."

During one week last month, Jimmy Carter, Michael Moore and former CIA interrogator Ali Soufan were all booked for the show. And all of them had books to promote.

"Rachel comes to me and says, 'We have to postpone Michael Moore because I can't read three books this weekend I can only read two,'" recalls Wolff. "And Michael Moore was all hurt until we told him, 'She has to read your book.' Michael says, 'Nobody reads the book!' Maddow totally reads the book."

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