MSNBC's Ari Melber Is Proving Up to the Challenge

Ari Melber - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of MSNBC

During a recent three-month period, his new show 'The Beat' outpaced the second hour of Wolf Blitzer's show in the ratings but trailed Fox News' Bret Baier's.

"It's a stupid amount of fun being on this show," the ever-jovial newspaper columnist Mike Lupica tells Ari Melber after finishing his guest segment on last Tuesday night's edition of The Beat

A ringing endorsement, and one that seems to jibe with the qualitative and quantitative — in the form of ratings — data suggesting that Melber's first three and half months as MSNBC's 6 p.m. host have been a success.

While the topic of Tuesday's show was an extremely serious one — Has attorney general Jeff Sessions been lying to Congress about his past contacts with Russian officials? — that didn't get in the way of more light-hearted banter on- and off-set.

In the open-air green room outside the set, Lupica feigns outrage when he hears Melber announce on air that veteran Republican strategist Steve Schmidt is the night's "special guest." Lupica gestures at Schmidt, seated across from him, and says, "Oh, you're the special guest." During a break on the show, Melber joins the bit, telling Lupica: "We consider him to be a bigger deal than you." The more serious-looking Schmidt waits until Lupica leaves the set to declare him "very sensitive." All with a smile, though.

At this point, in this news cycle, there's nothing particularly shocking about a member of the president's cabinet being forced to testify in front of skeptical Democrats and Republicans about his contacts with Russians, as Sessions did Tuesday morning.

But there are few cable news hosts more perfectly suited to be able to parse the ins and outs of the law surrounding congressional investigations and legal definitions of perjury than Melber, a trained lawyer who even did a stint on Capitol Hill in the early 2000s.

"The country has learned about this guy that does seem to forget some of his Russia meetings," Melber says of Sessions. But, he says, "there is a reasonable defense for people who are busy, that what looks important today was not at the top of their mind" at the time.

While he might think it, Melber doesn't come out and say that Sessions is a liar, though. "I think my job is to present the evidence, and sometimes the evidence is overwhelming," he says, his legal training showing.

"Ari has a real head-start by having the legal background he does," says the legendary First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who worked with Melber during his four-year stint at the law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel.

During those years, as Abrams says, Melber was "already dipping his toe into the MSNBC waters." He's now in, waist-deep, and Abrams — who watches his former protege's show regularly — says he's making him proud. 

In person, as on-camera, Melber comes off extremely polished — and Abrams says it carries over. "He's very relaxed on-air, much as he is off-air," he says.

A former MSNBC personality who worked closely with Melber says that he speaks from a "unique body of knowledge," which is what most people who like and approve of the job Melber is doing say. 

Dann McDorman, Melber's executive producer, says you couldn't create a more well-rounded cable news host for this news cycle if you tried to "design an anchor in a lab."

How's Melber doing so far? For the months of July through September, The Beat averaged 1.26 million total viewers, 286,000 ahead of CNN's 6 p.m. offering, the second hour of Wolf Blitzer's show. Both shows trailed Special Report with Bret Baier on Fox News, which averaged just over 2 million viewers for the period. "We're in a comfortable position," McDorman says.

In person, Ari Melber, the lawyer/television host/well-documented rap music fan, is very on-brand. During an hourlong coffee date at a restaurant below 30 Rock, Melber's work phone goes off and the ringtone is a Bob Marley song. The ringtone on his personal phone, he says, is a song by the rapper Future. During his panel with Lupica and feminist media executive Jess McIntosh, Melber makes a Kanye West reference that the 65-year-old Lupica isn't familiar with.

Melber says he's in flow with his new show, and doesn't try to affect an impartial news anchor shtick. "I feel like I'm totally me, and I feel like the show reflects my intensity, my vibe, and my search for evidence and answers," the 37-year-old says. "My hope is to be a trusted utensil for viewers. Like, literally, 'That thing works, I can rely on that thing.'"

Melber took over the 6 p.m. hour under uncomfortable circumstances. He replaced another former lawyer, Greta Van Susteren, who says she was fired by the top brass for doing poorly in the ratings. Van Susteren, a veteran of the cable news business, lasted less than six months.

Melber is very zen — and, once again, on-brand — when asked how long he thinks he has to prove out the concept of the show and his ability as a daily cable news host. He begins by quoting — or, more accurately, paraphrasing — a line from the 2003 song "Hey Ya!"

"You know, Outkast said, 'If nothing lasts forever, what makes love the exception?'" he says. "Does anything on this earth last forever? I mean, you can get pretty cosmic about it. We are very happy that the show is doing so well right now, because we're connecting with the audience.... This is a great opportunity that MSNBC has given me, and that's how I think about it."