She is only seven weeks into her new job as show host in the world of cable TV news, but already MSNBC's Rachel Maddow looks like she could be a game changer -- her ratings are so impressive she could wind up forcing change at competing channels as well.
And as engaging as her on-air persona can be, I fear Maddow's success as host of an ideologically driven take on the day's events is not going to be a good thing for TV news.
Here are the current ratings for Maddow and her 9 p.m. weeknight show on MSNBC compared with the numbers for the cable channel before her debut on Oct. 7.
During the 9 p.m. hour, she took the channel from an audience of 389,000 viewers to 1.89 million. And in the key demographic for TV news (25 to 54 years of age), she took MSNBC from 141,000 viewers to 700,000. In each case, her new audience is almost five times as large as the one she inherited.
As tiny as the audiences that she started with were for any national news program, Maddows' new ratings and the instant jolt she has provided are remarkable.
MSNBC is touting the claim that for the first time this month thanks to Maddow, MSNBC beat CNN's venerable Larry King in the 9 p.m. hour. The claim is likely to be disputed because it is fairly close (27,000 viewers) and it involves presidential debates causing some disruption. But King-beater or no King-beater, Maddow's numbers are through the roof.
Overall, MSNBC had a very good month led by the bombastic Keith Olbermann who now has the highest rated cable news programs among adults 18 to 34. Those viewers are the future of the republic, folks, and they are turning for the "news" and take on the state of the world to a guy every bit as dangerous in his left-wing bias as the Fox News channel's Bill O'Reilly is in his angry right-wing rants.
I have been watching Maddow the last couple of weeks, and part of her success is the skill with which she takes the ideological baton from Olbermann and runs with it when his Countdown show ends at 9 p.m. This is not a woman who gives a hoot for balance, fairness, verified facts, context or any of the other things traditional journalism have demanded in the past of those sitting at TV anchor desks.
Like Olbermann (and O'Reilly and Sean Hannity on the other side), she presents only the news that fits her political viewpoint and agenda. And she has started -- even in the last two weeks that I have been regularly watching -- getting more and more confident and theatrical in her presentation.
Viewers are now seeing her using all her stage presence to mock opponents -- such as rolling eyes and chuckling as she reads a new story. And while she has not yet indulged in the kind of full-blown, hot-dog, crazy-man rants that O'Reilly has so mastered and Olbermann has come to imitate with such success, she is heading in that direction.
What I fear is that CNN, which hews to a traditional notion of fact-based news and serves as cable TV's one outlet of reliable information in time of crisis, will throw in the towel and join in the ideological warfare that has long defined Fox and has increasingly shaped MSNBC, particularly in prime-time since Maddow signed on as Olbermann's partner in propaganda.
That is big, fat, loaded word, but we need to face facts: that is what such "news" programs amount to. And that is what increasingly viewers appear to be tuning into.
Maybe, TV only gives us what we demand -- or deserve.
(Above: MSNBC Photo of Rachel Maddow by Ali Goldstein)