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Rachel Maddow’s reduced workload keeps hurting MSNBC as ‘glorified understudy’ Alex Wagner struggles in demo

Rachel Maddow’s decision to only work Mondays continues to cause problems for MSNBC, as Alex Wagner has failed to fill the massive hole the network’s biggest star created at 9 p.m. 

Maddow, who makes roughly $30 million per year, shocked MSNBC viewers earlier this year when she announced she would only be hosting “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Mondays to pursue other projects despite the enormous salary. 

Maddow once competed for the title of “most-watched cable news host” during much of the Trump administration when she attracted a massive liberal audience, in part by pushing various since-debunked theories tying the former president to Russia. 

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“The Rachel Maddow Show” thrived off the left’s loathing of Trump, averaging 2.5 million viewers in 2017, 2.9 million in 2018, 2.8 million in 2019 and 3.2 million in 2020. However, media insiders speculated during the first year of Biden’s presidency in 2021 that Maddow was not long for the job, and in April 2022, Maddow returned from a lengthy hiatus and announced that she would roll back her on-air presence. 

Maddow now hosts “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Mondays only, leaving MSNBC without its cash cow for the remainder of the week. The network eventually selected “Alex Wagner Tonight” beginning last month to fill the coveted time slot Tuesday through Friday, but the program hasn’t been able to replicate Maddow’s success – particularly among younger viewers. 

Wagner’s show premiered on Tuesday, Aug. 16, and has since averaged 1.6 million viewers compared to 2.7 million for “Hannity,” her 9 p.m. ET competition on Fox News Channel. While “Hannity” is thumping Wagner by 63% among total viewers, the viewership gap is even wider among the demographic most coveted by advertisers. 

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“Alex Wagner Tonight” has averaged only 154,000 viewers among adults age 25-54, while “Hannity” managed 336,000 to beat MSNBC’s newest host by a whopping 118%. 

Wagner’s nightly viewership in the critical category is less than half of the 374,000 that Maddow averaged last year. The audience for MSNBC’s newest primetime show trails a variety of cable offerings including “Friends” repeats on Nick-at-Nite, the Food Network’s “Halloween Baking Champ,” the WNBA Playoffs on ESPN and HGTV’s “My Lottery Dream Home.” 

Last week, “Alex Wagner Tonight” dipped to 129,000 average demo viewers and delivered its worst night ever on Friday when less than 100,000 viewers from the category tuned in. 

Wagner has now lost viewers among the group most coveted by advertisers each week since her program launched. But she’s not only struggling to maintain Maddow’s once-large audience, Wagner is also struggling to maintain relevancy while lacking memorable moments and viral clips. 

Mediaite, a website dedicated to posting newsworthy and interesting cable news clips, hasn’t bothered to cover anything Wagner herself has said from her Aug. 16 teleprompter malfunction through Monday afternoon. NewsBusters, a media watchdog run by the conservative media Research Center, hasn’t found “Alex Wagner Tonight” particularly interesting, either. 

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“Instead of a splash in primetime, Alex Wagner has made a tiny, microscopic ripple as one could easily forget she’s a host in MSNBC’s lineup. Being Maddow’s glorified understudy hasn’t reaped the dividends MSNBC might have hoped for. She hasn’t scored any major headlines and thus becomes a void in the lineup,” NewsBusters associate editor Nicholas Fondacaro told Fox News Digital. 

“Before getting the anchor position, Wagner was known for making headlines with outrageous statements maligning the right, including in her past life with MSNBC daytime. But these days she’s mostly on par with the same old same old liberal pontificating,” he continued. “Her stated goal for her show was to ‘dismantle’ and ‘undercut’ right-wing lies, but can anyone honestly say her show is anything different from the rest of MSNBC’s lineup?”

While Maddow’s decision to work only a fifth of the time has put MSNBC in a tough spot, it could diminish her own brand. It remains to be seen if Maddow can maintain her own success long-term while hosting only on Monday nights – she continues to appear for MSNBC’s special political coverage – as cable news viewers historically develop habits and are accustomed to seeing a familiar face each weeknight. In 2022, Maddow has shed 27% of her total audience and 40% among the key demo compared to her 2021 totals, and these declines include the early weeks of the year when she still worked a full week. 

All ratings data courtesy of Nielsen Media Research. 

Fox News’ Joseph A. Wulfsohn contributed to this report. 

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