Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz -- How MSNBC Became a Liberal Mecca

"I'm a liberal -- and I'm not running from that word!" exclaims Ed Schultz, the latest lefty star in the cable television news-and-opinion firmament. Schultz, America's top-rated progressive radio talk show host, has just finished his first month as host of the eponymous Ed Show on MSNBC, which is attempting to duplicate its earlier success in crossing over progressive radio talk show host Rachel Maddow.

Despite the startling success of Maddow and the recent addition of Schultz to an increasingly liberal lineup that also includes MSNBC's first breakout star Keith Olbermann, getting anyone other than on-air talent like Schultz and Maddow to admit the obvious -- that the rising cable net is in the process of re-branding itself as the left-winged equivalent of right-leaning industry leader Fox News -- can be difficult. For example, when asked if the decision to hire Schultz was part of a conscious strategy to "move left, MSNBC President Phil Griffin chooses his words carefully.

"The answer is complicated...but simple at same time," Griffin responds. "The network has evolved a lot in the past few years. We went from doing a little bit of everything to doing lots of politics under Keith from 2003-05. We first began to get traction after the Iraq war started, after 'Mission Accomplished.' Then, more and more, politics led the way. When we did well with it in the 2006 elections, we made a decision to become 'the place for politics,' as the late Tim Russert dubbed us - and all of a sudden began to take off a little."

Griffin says that both Olbermann and fellow MSNBC stalwart Chris Mathews "both had a strong point of view about the war -- but our strategy then was simply to hire smart people, allow them to have a point of view, and to be authentic. At the same time, we moved even further toward politics and away from trying to be 'all things to all people.'"

Yes but ... Fox News covers politics as well, albeit with a clearly conservative slant. Doesn't the hiring of Schultz -- and Maddow before him -- signal that MSNBC is positioning itself as the progressive alternative?

"Well, Rachel did so well as a guest analyst -- and was so smart, like Keith -- that we asked her to fill in when he went on vacation," Griffin recalls. "And she held his numbers, which is something that other talent we had on-air at the time, like Dan Abrams, didn't do. So that made the decision to give Rachel her own show after the conventions really easy ... September 8, 2008, was her first day, and almost immediately it was obvious to us that Keith's audience loved Rachel ... so we had flow. But it was more organic than a conscious strategy to go left," Griffin concludes. "A vision of smart progressives just began to emerge ... "

Whether it's the result of an organic vision or a conscious strategy, however, adding a proudly progressive "populist figure" like Schultz to its lineup means that MSNBC is now providing the largest toehold progressives have ever had on television. Even Griffin admits the cable net now has a "progressive flow," although he quickly adds, "That's a little different than saying we consciously chose such a strategy."

Taking a swipe at Fox, he points out, "We have no daily talking points; we also have [the more conservative-oriented] 'Morning Joe' program -- so it's clear we have no political 'line,' if you will -- but sure, we now have a progressive flow."

"Hey, I'm encouraged to have and state my opinions," says Ed Schultz. "I think what we're doing here is best described as 'independent/progressive.' I'm very proud to state that I'm a liberal -- but the independent part means we don't run from the facts, either."

Schultz also believes that his sizeable radio audience will, over time, follow him to television. "The cross-promotion is terrific, we're expanding the brand, my website traffic has already doubled," he notes. "But let's face it -- not everyone in the country knows Ed Schultz, so it will take some time to develop this. We look at this as a marathon, not a sprint."

Still, both Schultz and Maddow have already driven MSNBC's all-important ratings numbers up in the highly competitive cable news environment. In its first full month "The Ed Show" -- although trailing both Fox and CNN in the time period -- increased MSNBC's rating by 9% in total viewers from the prior month and a full 15% from a year ago. And although much was made of the fact that Maddow's show recently drew its smallest audience since she joined MSNBC -- some 763,000 total viewers -- she still regularly beats longtime CNN star Larry King. True, Maddow's ratings have cooled since her meteoric rise during last fall's political frenzy, but her overall ratings last month were still doubling those MSNBC saw a year earlier, when Dan Abrams averaged just 527,000 total viewers in the same time slot.

Does that mean the network's strategy... er, "vision" to move left is succeeding?

"How do you measure if we're succeeding?" Griffin asks rhetorically. "Well, ratings are a good start! We're beating CNN; and we're also doing great with the high end demographic groups, such as young people aged 18-34."

Griffin perceives a "media revolution that's now happening, and we fit right into it. Our audience is web-centric, involved, highly informed, and looking for opinion and analysis." As a result of serving this new audience, he says, "our ratings are up from a year ago -- as well as from 3 months ago -- and we did well quite recently with the dueling Obama and Cheney speeches ... Meanwhile, CNN has no vision or strategy to speak of. It's a new world media order here -- and we embrace it, we fit right into it."

Still, the Fox News Channel recently ranked fourth overall in primetime cable ratings, averaging 1.89 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. Fox News, which had regularly been placing second behind USA, has now ranked in the top five cable networks for 20 straight weeks, and its cable news competitors still trail by a wide margin -- MSNBC placed 24th in primetime with an average of 747,000 total viewers, while CNN placed 28th with an average of 651,000 total viewers Facing such figures, even Griffin acknowledges that FNC still looms as the 800 pound gorilla in the cable news and opinion space.

"Look, Fox created something unique," he allows. "It's an Outsider's Club for people who felt voiceless. And I tip my hat to Glenn Beck for coming in and just killing right away, as did Rachel. But Ed will need more time and more traditional development than Rachel. It will be a slower build, and we're still trying to figure it out.

"What happened with Rachel was very unusual," recalls Griffin. "She was golden, an unbelievable success, in part because there clearly was another audience that felt underserved -- left, webcentric, young -- and instantly committed to her. They were voiceless, and now there is a voice. She really embodies our strategy of 'personality, smarts, and politics,' and that's a combination will win for us."

Schultz agrees. "I'm proud to be on this network," he says. "And sure, there has to be a synergy in your programming, whether you're on television or radio. If you're a rock station, don't play country! If you do talk, don't play music... That's just common sense. So we'll be progressive by remaining true to the issues, and independent by not running from the facts. That means we won't be in lockstep with liberals, and we'll certainly criticize Obama where it's warranted. Viewers don't want you to walk the fence -- they do want a point of view -- and that's what we bring. So be true to the facts -- but take a stand!"

Despite the gains going left has won for MSNBC, however, Schultz' boss maintains he still won't rush into anything wont rush the transition. "The biggest mistake this network made in past was rushing in, and thinking any good idea would work," says Griffin. " We had lots of good talent in the past -- but what we needed was a sensibility."

Now that Schultz has been added to the lineup at 6 pm, Griffin's most immediate concern is what else to do in primetime, where the valuable ten o'clock slot following Maddow's program is now devoted to re-runs of Olbermann's earlier 8 pm cablecast. Can the MSNBC honcho offer any "vision" of what will "flow" out of Maddow?

"Is it necessary that the flow out of Rachel be progressive?" Griffin ponders. "I have a little different perspective. Honestly, don't know if it will be a progressive -- Rachel really came out of nowhere, and I don't necessarily think her follow-up host has to be limited to that pure sensibility. Clearly it should be someone who is both smart and funny like she is... But I will make one promise: we're not done yet! This is such a vibrant time in media, and I want to say to Rachel's audience -- and everywhere I go I get stopped, there's such a connection between her and her audience, she's helped open a new world of approaches for us -- that people who like Rachel will like our new 10 o'clock show host and what we are going to do there. No, I take that back," he concludes. "Rachel's audience will love it! I promise."