MSNBC's Chris Hayes Isn't as Worried About Ratings Anymore (Q&A)

MSNBC
Chris Hayes interviewing Hillary Clinton on Sept. 25.

"We want to be the most-watched show in our time slot. That's the goal," says the host as his network is riding a wave of interest in the first eight months of the Trump presidency.

Chris Hayes is probably relieved that he doesn't have to answer any more questions about how, when and why his 8 p.m. MSNBC show, All In, will be cancelled. Back in October 2015, an anonymous company source told a CNN reporter that "Chris knows he's going to go." Well, nearly two years later, Chris hasn't gone.

The show, which averaged 1.8 million total viewers for the third quarter of the year, generally trails Tucker Carlson on Fox News and is competitive with the first hour of Anderson Cooper's show on CNN. But it's attracting much better ratings than it was a few years ago, and Hayes says it's not just because MSNBC and its competitors are benefiting right now from a huge swell of political interest.

"We're better at what we do now than we were two or three years ago," Hayes said. "And we're in a better position to take advantage of that interest, to understand what it means, to sort of distinguish ourselves, than we were two or three years ago."

While he knows that ratings are not the end-all, be-all for a cable news host, Hayes is determined to be on top. "I want to be No. 1," the generally modest Hayes says. "We want to be the most-watched show in our time slot. That's the goal."

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Hayes about his show, about the broader cable news landscape and about a certain video of a certain colleague of his that broke a very specific segment of the internet last week. This interview has been condensed for clarity and brevity.

There was a theory that interest in politics would die down after the election, and that the media companies that had been riding high would come back to earth again. But, obviously, that hasn't happened. Has that been your experience?

Yes, yeah. You know, it fluctuates: certain stories ... I think sort of ratchet up interest more, and some ratchet up interest less. Generally, the sort of equilibrium level of constant attention is higher than it's ever been in the four-plus years I've been doing the show. And also I think that's just anecdotally true among people — like not from a numbers perspective, just anecdotally through texting with friends of mine who we would never text about politics — we'd just text about stuff going on in our lives or sports, all of sudden we're like texting about politics. So there's that replicated millions of times over. And I was definitely not in the school that thought there'd be some burst and it would trail off. My assumption after the election in the period — November, December — was that there would be a tremendous amount of civic engagement and attention in the Trump era that would be sustained for a long period of time.

How do you handle the always-on nature of being a political journalist in the era of Trump? For example, the president spent the weekend criticizing basketball and football players.

It's funny, as you say that that I'm seeing a new piece of news I want to flag for my staff. So, perfect case and point. Yes, so that is definitely true, although the thing I will say about this job: in some ways it's like — the punishing part about it can be the fact that you have this show every day and you constantly have to deliver every night, same time, live, no excuses no matter what's going on in the world, how healthy or sick you're feeling or whatever. But the upside is that I really try to unplug from the news on Saturday and Sunday, because I don't have a show that night, and the news is going to get stale/if it's meaningful I'll learn about it Monday morning. So I try to stay relatively unplugged on the weekends, just because there's no show that night and if I get all worked up or read-in on something at 3 p.m. on Saturday, like who knows if that even makes the show by Monday night at 8 p.m.

The networks and the people who cover the networks put a lot of stock in year-over-year changes in ratings, focusing on who's up and who's down and any other sort of narratives that can be extracted from the data. How much attention do you pay to ratings and to these changes?

The ratings are just ever-present. Ratings are a presence in your life if you host a television show. It's just a fact, and the question of how you relate to that presence, the degree to which you feel like you're confident that if you make decisions that you think are good decisions, whether from a kind of production standpoint or an editorial standpoint, that you have the confidence the audience will go with you, versus the degree to which you're second-guessing yourself. Like, you can go through a lot of different psychological spaces. There's no settled relationship you ever have, I think, to it.

I just used a metaphor before, and I'll use another one here. I think a lot about professional baseball players and hitters, where it's like, hitting a baseball is really hard. And really good hitters go through bad streaks where they're second-guessing themselves and they have a hitch in their swing and they're thinking too much, and then they go through really good streaks, and it's a little like that. There's a certain degree to which when you're not a rookie anymore and you're a veteran, you have a certain amount of confidence. We have a base audience that will tune in where there's like a floor. And that gives us some sort of grounding and stability in the decisions we make. But it is also the case that we are thinking as we produce the show about what people are going to watch. That is a huge part of what our job is. And it's never going to not be that.

How much attention do you pay to programming shifts at your competitor networks? Fox News, for example, has been making big changes to its evening lineup, including moving Sean Hannity's show to 9 p.m. (setting up a matchup against Rachel Maddow) and adding a new 10 p.m. host in Laura Ingraham. Or, is that sort of off your daily radar?

I wouldn't say it's off my radar, but it's also not that central. I'm in the business, so I'll read about it. But it's certainly not, I think, making changes in the way I specifically do things. You know, it was a enormous deal when the No. 1 show in cable news for over a decade went away. [Laughs]. Like, I definitely noticed that. And I think in some ways it has altered the dynamic of that time slot, which is more competitive than it's ever been in the history of cable news. And opened up some space that I think that we would like to seize and occupy.

Do you think an 8 p.m. Tucker Carlson viewer might be more potentially amenable to your show than an 8 p.m. Bill O'Reilly viewer?

I just don't know the answer to that. That is a question that has some kind of empirical answer that I would like to know the answer to but don't. I just don't know.

You talked about some of the technical and logistical challenges you deal with as a cable news host. One of your colleagues [Lawrence O'Donnell] got some heat last week over a video, leaked to and released by Mediaite, that showed him getting extremely frustrated on set. Some in the media mocked him, but some current and former cable news hosts sympathized with him and tried to explain to viewers how frustrating and challenging the job can be on a daily basis.

My general feeling about that whole thing, aside from the fact that, like, it's pretty messed up that that was leaked, is — just because, like, it's a space that we're all sort of trusting each other in — the general thing about live TV is, and I've discovered this first-hand, it's harder than it looks. And it's really stressful. And it never stops being stressful. You never got to the point, I think, where the fight-or-flight nodes in your brain are not engaged. And in some ways that's comforting, because I think that's part of what the nightly rewarding challenge of it is, but it's just a basic truth about the enterprise.

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