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Obama won, now what does Maddow's future hold?

The left-leaning host of an MSNBC show sees a ratings drop, but remains committed to asking the tough questions.

April 22, 2009|Yvonne Villarreal

When MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" debuted during the historic campaign of Barack Obama, the program's ratings soared and made its host a breakout star on cable.

But as the president's administration nears its 100-day milestone, Maddow's show -- like most cable programs that traffic in political talk and chatter -- has seen its numbers cool. March was the lowest-rated month so far for Maddow with her numbers falling from an average high of 1.9 million viewers to just slightly over 1.1 million.

The road to regain viewers would seem an especially challenging one for Maddow. Politics, not to mention television, thrives on conflict, but how much of that will there be with a left-leaning host in a time of a left-leaning president? Maddow isn't worried.

"My job of asking questions and being critical doesn't stop depending on who is in the White House," said the 36-year-old host. "My main concern is keeping the quality of the show high. We don't debate the ratings very much."

Such concerns are a long way from last September when Maddow's show stormed onto the crowded political talk circuit and more than doubled her network's viewership in her time slot. Audiences, and many critics, responded to the show's mix of political analysis, offbeat news and Maddow's stinging wit.

"I think Rachel is a rock star," said Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, about the show that airs at 9 weeknights (6 p.m. PDT). "We've never had success anywhere near that in our 12-year history at 9 p.m. right out of the gate."

And even though Maddow's ratings slipped last month, she still beat out CNN's "Larry King Live," a consistent cable news heavyweight, among the 25- to 54-year-old demographic. And, on some nights, she bested King in total viewers. But she's still a good distance from Fox News' "Hannity," which continues to dominate the 9 p.m. time slot.

Despite her political similarities with the new administration, there is still a president to hold to account. She's already gone after Obama on issues like wiretapping and torture.

"She has not at all been afraid to be critical of Obama when she disagrees with him," said Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "It's a place for people to tune in and hear intelligent conversation about differences of opinion."

A former AIDS activist and Rhodes scholar, Maddow began her journey to becoming MSNBC's ratings darling on a whim, when she auditioned for a job as a morning radio sidekick in Massachusetts. By 2004, she made it onto Air America, a liberal talk radio network.

The platform brought her to the attention of cable news producers and it wasn't long before she made regular appearances on MSNBC's "Tucker" and CNN's "Paula Zahn Now." She eventually became a frequent substitute host on "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" -- a stint that would later lead to a show touting her name in the title.

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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'The Rachel Maddow Show'

Where: MSNBC

When: 6 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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