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Steve Miller

Steve Miller

Posted: October 22, 2008 09:03 AM

Amid New Media Landscape, Rachel Maddow Manages to Succeed in Old School Medium


Even before the economic meltdown, newspapers, magazines and radio were having a tough time--as newspapers suffered big declines in circulation and ad revenue, and magazines and radio saw audience and revenue figures stagnate."- Erik Sass, Media Post Publications, October 21, 2008

The entire Presidential campaign this year has had one code word: Change. Senator Barack Obama was the first to use this as his mantra and then his message was co-opted by almost every other candidate on both sides of the aisle. The political phrase of 2008 has led Democrats, Republicans, Greens and others to take stands that most of them would not have taken in any other election.

But, this cry for a different direction is not the most significant, long-term alteration that this contest will bring to the American people. That has already happened in our homes, offices, cars and day to day activities. The biggest change has come in media.

It's the internet, cell phones, Ipods and texting, stupid. Our entire society has been quickly transported into a H.G. Wellsian universe of the future through our newly established dependence on technology that did not exist less than a decade ago.

This has changed the way we stay in touch with the campaigns, the candidates, the issues and our opinions. We are all part of the reportage through blogs, You Tube and self-started sites that reach millions in the United States and billions around the world. We are no longer locked into the passive, reactive television existence that forced us to play a waiting game while the powerful few doled out their reports on their schedule.

The change has been driven by 18-34 year olds and they have been dragging their parents and grandparents screaming into the future. The boomers have been forced into learning how to use technology they can't see without their reading glasses or manupulate without larger keys. The women and men that were used to getting their information from the Big Three network anchors and once a day newspapers are forging their way through websites and the blogosphere.

"More important for her bosses at MSNBC is that "The Rachel Maddow Show," her left-leaning news and commentary program, has averaged a higher rating among 25- to 54-year-olds than "Larry King Live" on CNN for 13 of the 25 nights she has been host. While the average total audience of her program remains slightly smaller than that of Mr. King's, Ms. Maddow, 35, has made MSNBC competitive in that time slot for the first time in a decade. The channel at that hour has an average viewership of 1.7 million since she started on Sept. 8, compared with 800,000 before.

Given that advertising dollars -- and the reputations of networks -- rise and fall on prime-time ratings, Ms. Maddow's rise has been closely watched by media executives."- The New York Times, October 21, 2008

It is the aforementioned media transformation that makes Rachel Maddow's ratings surge much more significant. In an ever diminishing and static network and cable television world, Ms. Maddow has taken a large chunk out of the millenial generation and thrust them back in front of the tube. With ad revenue decreasing and overall viewership and readership for every single old media outlet (television, radio, newspapers, magazines)in steep decline, the combination of Ms. Maddow's intelligent approach and the most exciting Presidential campaign in two generations has produced a genuine phenomenom.

However, there is more to this than meets the eye. While she is an avowed and proud liberal, Ms. Maddow does more to present a truly fair and balanced program. Unlike her mentor, Keith Olbermann, or her network's arch enemies at Fox, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, she welcomes members of the opposition with dignity and aplomb. She allows her guests to express their opinions without interruption or bombast. This makes the speaker comfortable and genuinely informs the viewer. She will disagree or question, as she did last week with Conservative Columnist David Frum, but will discuss rather than argue points. In the year of the calm, intellectual Barack Obama, viewers were looking for similar demeanor on a political program and Ms. Maddow provided it.

With two weeks to go in the election, television critics will ask whether she can maintain her momentum. Truthfully, that is not the question.

As time goes on, Ms. Maddow and the rest of the chattering class will have to brace themselves for the ever apporaching end of media as we know it. Despite her success, the NBC family will be laying off long-time workers, make the long awaited switch to digital delivery and try to return itself to significance.

The peacock network is not alone. Newspapers, terrestrial radio, magazines and the networks are all staring in the face of elimination by new technologies being driven by a generation that wants instant results to satisfy their shorter attention spans and multi-tasking needs. Within the next decade, some or all of these stalwarts of the American media will go the way of eight track tapes, 78 rpm records and broadsheets.

Ms. Maddow's ascendance is a flicker of hope for an industry that grows in despair with each passing day. Her ever increasing audience shows the gods of the cathode ray that they can still latch on to those elusive eyeballs if they trust their intelligence and hearts.