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Rachel Maddow’s Replacement Is No Rachel Maddow

We gave the "Alex Wagner Tonight" anchor eight weeks to right the ratings ship. It didn't happen.

Alex Wagner replaced Rachel Maddow in MSNBC primetime on August 16, 2022.

Alex Wagner replaced Rachel Maddow in MSNBC primetime on August 16, 2022.

MSNBC

Alex Wagner had a tough assignment: Take over Rachel Maddow’s 9 p.m. MSNBC time slot and try not to lose viewers. After eight weeks, it’s not a mission accomplished.

Since “Alex Wagner Tonight” began in mid-August, it has averaged 1.581 million total viewers per evening according to Nielsen. Of that tally, 147,000 viewers come from the 25-54 demographic — the key age range sought by news programming advertisers. Wagner’s averages are down 30 percent and 49 percent, respectively, from “The Rachel Maddow Show” during the same eight-week period in 2021.

Yes, Wagner has shed nearly one-third of Maddow’s audience and roughly half the nightly demo number. Before announcing her intentions to step away, Maddow had been dangerously close to league-leader Sean Hannity’s Fox News Channel program. These days, no one at Fox is nervous.

While contrasting like-periods is generally considered the fairest way to look at the transition, it’s not the only way. Wagner’s first eight weeks are actually pretty close to Maddow’s final eight weeks in terms of overall viewers. By that POV, the new 9 o’clock host is down only 3 percent; Wagner is down 28 percent in the demo, however.

The writing for “Maddow” was on the wall months before the long-time host signed off on May 1, 2022; Wagner took over on August 16. Between tenures, “MSNBC Prime” aired Tuesday-Friday and was hosted by a rotation of anchors, including Wagner. A little more tempered positivity: Wagner is up quite a bit from that three-and-a-half-month placeholder programming.

Maddow launched her new podcast on Monday, titled “Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra.” Her first two episodes posted this morning. “Come for the mysteriously distraught U.S. Senator weeping at his desk, stay for the stolen machine guns!” she teased on Twitter.

MSNBC is not alone in its declines; it’s not even the biggest loser in terms of total audience. While MSNBC is ceding ground to perennial No. 1 Fox News Channel, CNN is down in the deepest dumps. Year-to-date in Wagner’s 9 p.m. hour, CNN’s “AC 360” has dropped 45 percent both overall and in the demo; MSNBC is down 36 percent overall (and -52 percent in the demo); Fox News’ “Hannity” is down 1 percent overall (-8 percent in the demo).

The trend is not totally specific to the time slot: In primetime (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.), CNN is down 40 percent overall (-44 percent in the demo) this year; MSNBC is down 28 percent overall (-46 percent in the demo), and Fox is up 1 percent overall (down 5 percent in the demo).

It’s worth noting that we’re just entering the midterm elections period; the comparable weeks from 2021 were off cycle. In other words, it’s not the calendar itself that’s dragging cable-news programming down.

Nine o’clock champ Hannity averaged 2.7 million total viewers during Wagner’s brief tenure; the key demo contributed 353,000 of those, more than twice Wagner’s 25-54 audience. CNN at 9 p.m., which is Anderson Cooper’s turf, has settled for less than half Wagner’s overall audience — but “AC 360” has actually drawn 7,000 more demo viewers than Wagner. Still, it’s too early to banish Wagner to the morning shift like Cooper’s former primetime colleague Don Lemon; give her another eight weeks.

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