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Opinion Rachel Maddow can do whatever she pleases

Rachel Maddow in Cambridge, Mass., on on Oct. 16, 2017. (Steven Senne/AP)

Fans of “The Rachel Maddow Show” received a barrage of details about the host’s future on MSNBC. The short version: Having returned from after a hiatus that started in February, Maddow will host her show Mondays through Thursdays until April 28. Starting on May 2, Maddow will be moving to a weekly frequency on Mondays only. Over the rest of the week, the show will be called “MSNBC Prime.”

Who’ll be in Maddow’s usual spot on the four nights when Maddow is working on other stuff? MSNBC says there will be a rotating series of hosts and that there are no immediate plans for a single replacement host on those nights. The details sketch out one of the best contractual situations in the history of cable news: big money, flexibility and carte blanche to do something other than respond to the news cycle. When Maddow is not hosting her show, she’ll be working on bigger projects, including the film adaptation of her “Bag Man” podcast and book with Michael Yarvitz about the corruption of former vice president Spiro Agnew.

The arrangement caps off the 13-year run of “The Rachel Maddow Show,” which the host willed into the beating heart of MSNBC’s prime-time lineup. Her show finished fourth in 2021 in the cable-news field, in front of many — but not all — of Fox News’s offerings. MSNBC’s “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell was eighth, a showing helped by Maddow’s lead-in audience.

MSNBC’s desperation to hang on to Maddow’s audience radiates from its slapdash 9 p.m. arrangement. The network has essentially set up an adult table for Maddow alone on Monday nights and a kids’ table for the rest of the week. What’s more, she’ll dip in whenever the news gets hot: “Now for big news events, for things like the leadup to the election, I will of course be here more than that,” said Maddow on Monday upon her return from the hiatus.

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We’d suggest one additional project for her new schedule: As this blog reported, Maddow broadcast credulous segments on the Steele dossier but declined to revisit them after the document fell to pieces. Perhaps that’d be a good side project now that Maddow has some more time on her hands.

As for MSNBC, the timeshare setup marks an acknowledgment that the network failed to develop a successor to Maddow. That’s not a strong condemnation: Maddow’s approach to cable newscasting is singular, involving a distinctive preference for long opening monologues and a distaste for panel discussions. Mold-breakers of that order don’t populate newsrooms.

Fox News, by contrast, owes its ratings dominance to the politico-cultural affinity that millions of Americans feel toward the network’s mission and disciplined messaging. This dynamic explains why Fox News has traditionally had so little problem replacing popular hosts, such as Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly — there’s always another host on deck who’s willing to read off of the network script.

Try as they might, the non-Fox News cable networks haven’t been able to replicate this franchise-spanning connection with a large audience. Maddow has stood pretty much alone as a challenger to Fox News supremacy, and her absence during the recent hiatus resulted in a sharp drop in MSNBC ratings for her hour. That’s a drop-off that MSNBC appears ready to abide every single week for the foreseeable future.

The thinking, accordingly, appears to be this: Better to have Maddow one night a week than no nights a week.

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