How Hollywood Works Now: MSNBC's Chris Hayes Was "Made For This Moment" 
Courtesy of Christopher Dilts/MSNBC

How Hollywood Works Now: MSNBC's Chris Hayes Was "Made For This Moment"

A darling of the progressive left has refashioned his nightly political show into an hourlong coronavirus education hour, even as he works from a remote home studio.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 12, Chris Hayes sat down at a small table at the MSNBC offices at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York with an associate producer and a member of the New York Times editorial board to record an episode of his podcast, Why Is This Happening?

As he listened to his guest talk about the history of the Electoral College, Hayes twice peered up at a screen in the corner of the room to see a chyron below anchor Chuck Todd that blared, "Stocks suffer their worst day since 1987 crash as alarm grows over coronavirus pandemic." He stayed focused on the interview.

A few hours later, filming his nightly show, All In, Hayes sat face-to-face with his guest, an emergency room doctor in New York, to talk about how bad things were getting.

"I think that was probably the last day we did in-person," Hayes says a week later from his home in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, before he left the city altogether and began broadcasting his show from a remote studio upstate. "We’re all on this curve of learning what to do and what not to do."

Hayes, 41, is figuring this out like the rest of us. At the same time, his primetime show has emerged as a reliable beacon of truth in a sea of uncertainty. And when he’s not hosting the show, Hayes is spitting out nuggets of reporting and analysis to his 2 million followers on Twitter.

"Sometimes, I feel like he’s been screaming at us to pay attention and can’t understand why we’re not," says Andy Slavitt, a former Obama administration health official who has been a regular on Hayes’ show recently.

A onetime print journalist for left-leaning publications like The Nation and In These Times who initially struggled with the medium, Hayes is settling into his role as one of the stars of his network during the most urgent news period in years.

He has always been popular with the intellectual left and MSNBC Moms, but now he’s getting even more attention for his coronavirus coverage.

"I feel like what we’re doing right now is as important as it’s ever been," Hayes says. “I feel like there is a vacuum of credible authority on this. I think it’s our job to be a platform for fact- and science-based rigor. I always feel that way. But I feel that more than ever now. I feel like I have a role to play, and I feel a very intense sense of mission."

His boss, MSNBC head Phil Griffin, also has noticed. "Chris has delivered the facts with outstanding analysis from the moment this global crisis hit," he says. "That’s who he is. When there’s so much uncertainty and we’re looking for clarity, we turn to Chris across every platform."

Hayes says he’s been "obsessed" with the novel coronavirus as a story. "I could do two hours every night right now, easily," he says, before adding, "I don’t actually want to."

These days, studio shows are a rarity at MSNBC. More than 95 percent of 30 Rock-based employees are working remotely.

Hayes’ show was an early adopter, going remote March 23 and setting a template for the rest of the lineup. "Monday night’s All In With Chris Hayes pulled off a feat no one ever thought possible: live TV with only two people (the director and technical director) in the control room," network chairman Andy Lack wrote in a companywide memo.

Says Hayes: "We’re basically trying to get to what we call 'zero footprint,' which is like no one going to 30 Rock — as few people as possible."

Now that he’s remote, Hayes doesn’t have to worry about the possibility of being too sick to go to the office and do his show. "I don’t want to be off-air for 14 days if I get sick, whether that’s just a cold or the actual virus," he says. "I just want to keep doing the show as much as I can. You can’t do that responsibly if you’re running any, any, any risk of transmitting."

During his March 12 studio show, Hayes already was experiencing both the pros and cons of interviewing guests remotely. Because of a slight delay in transmission, on two separate occasions his guests — Sen. Cory Booker and former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy — kept talking after he tried to end the segment. (A cameraman looked pissed, but Hayes didn't.)

Now that he’s had some time to adjust, Hayes has come to terms with the new normal for All In and found some things he appreciates about the format. "Everything is very stripped down," he says. "I’m spending less time thinking about production and more time thinking about content. The interviews are longer. The amount of guests we can talk to is sort of democratized. So, in some ways, it’s weirdly kind of closer to my ideal model of a show."

Besides the obvious health benefit of having an extreme amount of social distance between himself and his guests, Hayes says that being remote has actually opened up the booking process. "Usually to book someone, you’re asking them to take a car to a studio, get made up, sit there, get there nice and early to make sure they can do it, and then maybe be on-air for like four or five minutes and then get in a car and go back home," he says. "The number of people who just can do that logistically is limiting."

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The spread of the coronavirus is not the first "holy shit" story Chris Hayes has covered over the past few months and years. It’s almost hard to remember now, but the president of the United States was actually impeached earlier this year.

Hayes spent much of 2018 and 2019 focused on the drip drip malfeasance of the Trump administration and the possibility that the president could suffer real consequences from the Mueller Report and his meddling in Ukraine.

The Trump era has been a boom time for both MSNBC and Hayes, who weathered frequent stories about his ratings woes and imminent demise back in 2014 and 2015, when his show was still new and there was less audience demand for news about politics. ("Chris knows he’s going to go — he’s known that for a year," an "MSNBC source" told CNN in October 2015.)

Back then, there was reason for concern. All In debuted in 2013 and brought in just 547,000 viewers in the second quarter of 2015.

"The time that you think most about ratings is when they’re terrible," Hayes says. "When they’re going well, you’re not thinking about them."

After signing him as a contributor in 2010, Griffin gave Hayes his big break in 2011 with the two-hour weekend show Up, which achieved a sort of cult status with wonky liberals. After only two years, he made it to primetime.

Now, Hayes is firmly enmeshed in MSNBC’s future, particularly considering the turnover in other parts of the network’s daily schedule, like the unfilled 7 p.m. hour until recently hosted by Chris Matthews, who abruptly retired March 2 after a series of on-air gaffes and a looming misconduct claim by a former guest.

But even before the spread of the coronavirus ratcheted up interest in television news shows (and TV in general), Hayes was way up from those early days. In 2019, Hayes averaged 1,752,000 total viewers a night, just behind colleague Lawrence O’Donnell and Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum, good for ninth-best in all of cable news.

Last year, All In beat CNN’s Anderson Cooper in both total viewers and the 25-to-54 demo, though he lost to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said in April 2019 that "Chris Hayes is what every man would be if feminists ever achieved absolute power in this country: apologetic, bespectacled and deeply, deeply concerned about global warming and the patriarchal systems that cause it."

Of Carlson, who hosted the now-forgotten Tucker on MSNBC in the mid-aughts, Hayes says, "He has had many different incarnations over his public life, which have always seemed to sync up well with what he can sell." In response, Carlson says through a Fox News spokesperson, "Chris Hayes is still selling the same brand of mindless identity politics nobody wants to buy."

All In has been doing even better since March 6, when interest in the virus ramped up — since then, the show has averaged 2,252,000 nightly viewers, the best MSNBC has done at 8 p.m. since November 2008.

Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s biggest star, has mentored Hayes, her lead-in at 9 p.m., throughout his time at the network. "Chris is always good — he deserves a much bigger national reputation than he has," she says. "He has a supercomputer-style ability to input data and then output what ought to make sense about it to the average person. There’s just no one like him. If you want to understand more about what we’re going through, watch Chris. He was made for this moment."

Says Hayes: "I always feel a tremendous responsibility with this job. It weighs on me tremendously."

Despite the fame and scrutiny that has come his way and the grind of an always-on media universe, Hayes' wife Kate Shaw says he's "remarkably intact and largely unchanged" as a person.

Shaw, a law professor and ABC News contributor, met the Bronx-born Hayes when they were freshmen at Brown University.

"People do lose themselves in this industry, and I think he understood that early on," she says. "It can be for some people a toxic brew of attention and adulation and crushing insecurity, and I think it can really warp people. And, I think Chris has been just kind of vigilant against all that and he's been successful. He's basically the same person I met 22 years ago."

Shaw says that she has seen a "shift" in her "explainer" husband since he began covering the virus, which has served to "focus him" on his nightly task: "It’s kind of a perfect fit for this moment."

Before Hayes stood out for his coverage of the coronavirus, he was something of a progressive unicorn at MSNBC, a network that employs a fair share of more traditional Democrats and lapsed Republicans. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ now-faltering presidential campaign have heaped praise on Hayes' coverage of the race while lashing out at his colleagues.

"The furthest left they go is Chris," says Cenk Uygur, an MSNBC host turned critic who founded digital media network The Young Turks.

Notes Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director of The Nation, who hired Hayes when he was 28 as Washington editor: "I think Chris is the true progressive on MSNBC, in the best sense of that word. He values key voices in that community and understands the importance of giving them airtime because they don’t get the airtime other forces do."

The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who met Hayes before television days, says his friend is "absolutely brilliant" and "tremendously, tremendously, intellectually courageous."

"I think right now like he's a gift to us," Coates says of his coronavirus coverage. "I'm not shocked that he's doing an incredible job."

Following the COVID-19 crisis, Hayes says there’s still more he wants to do with his life than hosting a cable news show.

"I have big dreams and ambitions," he says, sounding more like a guy at the beginning of his career than the apex.

Hayes reveals that he has been working on a scripted show with a writer friend that he says he’d "very much love to sell and put into production at some point" — but won’t go into further detail about at this time. He "would love to have a kind of production company that does docs. I would love to try other formats. There are more books I want to write." (Hayes published 2012’s Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, which he followed in 2017 with A Colony in a Nation.)

After a week of commuting from New York City to his family upstate, Hayes left to be with them for good in late March. He’s not sure when he’ll return.

While there are no silver linings to the coronavirus crisis, Hayes says he’s cherishing the opportunity — for as long as it lasts — to finally spend more time with his children. Hayes says there’s a lot he’s been missing in his family life by hosting a primetime program that ends at 9 p.m.

"If you look across the networks in primetime, there’s a small handful of us who are doing it with young children," Hayes says. "I’ve got an 8-year-old, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. I don’t see them at night, five days a week. I come home at 10 p.m. I get to see my big kids for maybe 45 minutes in the morning, when we do breakfast and I take them to school. And that sucks. And I’m not sure I want to do that for the entirety of my children’s childhood. … You only get to parent your kids once."

Seemingly, it took a global pandemic to afford him — and cable news hosts like him — a true work-life balance. He calls it "a weird, happy benefit of this awful time."

This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.