A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Is there an opening for reinvention, or at least modernization, of the cable news formula? If so, the opportunity is at 9 o’clock Eastern.
Fox has had Sean Hannity successfully hosting its 9 p.m. hour for most of the past 25 years. CNN has been trying out different hosts ever since Chris Cuomo was fired last December. And MSNBC has made a big bet on Alex Wagner, who debuted a new show in the valuable time slot on Tuesday evening.
MSNBC’s 9 p.m. renovation was born of necessity – Rachel Maddow, the network’s biggest star and the host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” since 2008, was supremely burnt out. Network executives convinced her to keep hosting on Mondays and gave her a broader production company deal with NBCUniversal. Then, after months of uncertainty, Wagner was tapped to run the hour Tuesdays through Fridays.
In interviews ahead of the launch, Wagner spoke of the ways she will approach the time slot differently than Maddow, for example by taping stories in the field and trying to “widen the lens” in terms of bookings.
Tuesday’s show was mostly standard prime time fare, however, which made sense for two reasons: To appeal to Maddow’s regular audience and to cover Liz Cheney’s defeat in Wyoming’s GOP primary. Wagner interviewed Mark Leibovich, Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Joyce Vance, and checked in with Steve Kornacki for primary updates.
Over on CNN, this week’s 9 p.m. host Alisyn Camerota held forth with panels of guests, with John King at the Magic Wall to cover the Wyoming results.
In recent months the in-person panel has been a signature feature of “CNN Tonight.” (As any producer will tell you, face-to-face roundtable conversations are much more dynamic than remote chats in boxes.)
CNN’s 9 p.m. anchor rotation has included Laura Coates, Sara Sidner, and Kasie Hunt. CNN CEO Chris Licht has said that a new 9 p.m. program will be rolled out in the fall.
Over on Fox, Hannity opened his show by bashing the DOJ, FBI, CNN, MSNBC, and so forth. He singled out Cheney for derision, in keeping with his identity as one of Donald Trump’s biggest defenders on television.
Some nights these programs make different meals out of entirely different ingredients, but on Tuesday they were all cooking with the same: Wyoming, Cheney, Trump, and the classified documents scandal. Still, the tastes varied. Midway through the hour, when the banner on CNN said “TRUMP FACES GREATEST TEST YET OF HIS ABILITY TO SURVIVE SCANDAL,” the banner on Fox said “TRUMP ALLIES TARGETED BY AN OUT-OF-CONTROL FBI.”
Hannity is the 9 p.m. veteran with the ratings to show for it: His show is firmly in first place in both total viewers and in the 25-54 demo. Other right-wing opinion options, like Newsmax, have a tiny fraction of Hannity’s audience.
A “highly experimental new era”
For MSNBC, audience patterns have been changing. Her recent substitutes have averaged a bit more than half her Monday audience, which is a testament to her unique standing with the MSNBC base.
The splitting of the time slot, with Wagner taking Tuesdays through Fridays, is “ushering in a highly experimental new era for one of the most pivotal time slots in cable news,” the Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr wrote Tuesday.
MSNBC president Rashida Jones told him that “we’re giving her the time and space to grow. This is a long investment because I think Alex is incredibly talented.”
Wagner opened “Alex Wagner Tonight” by addressing Maddow’s fans and saying “I hope to live up to the incredibly high standard she has set in covering the stories of the day and bringing context to this moment that we are living through together.”
Then she teased her upcoming segments – but the teleprompter apparently contained some outdated text. (It seemed like she started to read a script from a rehearsal show last week.) She raised her hands to get the control room’s attention, then pivoted to her intro about Cheney’s fate in the primary.
Fifteen minutes later, before tossing to break, Wagner called it a “case of the technical gremlins.” She said “we hope the rest of the night will be smooth sailing, America, but this is live TV and it has its charms.” Millions of viewers agree.