Whoa: Maddow heading for MSNBC's exits -- in an election year?

AP Photo/Steven Senne

Color me skeptical, especially given the timing. Rachel Maddow provides the linchpin to MSNBC’s prime time and its election coverage. Even so, the Daily Beast reports that Maddow may hit the road just as Democrats prepare to defend their razor-thin control of Congress in Joe Biden’s first midterms.

Coincidence? Maaaaybeee …

According to six people familiar with the situation, Maddow, 48, is seriously considering leaving the network when her contract ends early next year as negotiations drag on and the temptation to take her brand elsewhere or start her own lucrative media company has grown.

Insiders who spoke with The Daily Beast said while the star host has occasionally entertained other offers in the past, she has in recent months increasingly expressed openness to exiting when her deal ends, citing a desire to spend more time with her family and the toll of hosting a nightly program since 2008.

Maddow seems unlikely to jump to a rival television news network. Instead, she has been intrigued by opportunities in the streaming and podcasting space, which would allow her more freedom, time for her personal life, and for other projects, people familiar with her thinking said.

Is this on the level, or is Maddow playing hardball with MSNBC in contract negotiations? The Daily Beast story suggests either could be the case — or even both:

The high-profile TV host has gotten aggressive in exploring her next career moves: In recent months, she left her longtime agents at Napoli Management Group, linking up with powerful talent agency Endeavor and its CEO Ari Emanuel and ​​president Mark Shapiro, who are representing her in contract negotiations with NBCUniversal.

Does one hire Endeavor and the agent who inspired Jeremy Piven’s character in Entourage just to shift to podcasting and to spend more time with family? Come on, man. Also, if Maddow wants to hit the exits, the negotiations would not get “heated” to the point where the network needed to bring in its former president and Maddow friend Phil Griffin to consult and “offer[] advice,” as the Daily Beast reports.

On the other hand, Brian Stelter tweeted last night that he’d heard the same rumors about Maddow wanting to leave:

Both TBD and The Week point to a 2019 interview Maddow did with the New York Times, in which they note that Maddow bet big on anti-Trump sentiment. Even at that pinnacle of success, Maddow signaled that the grind was too much:

Between writing her book, making her show and reporting to physical therapy, she had no time to herself. “I’m realizing now — 10, 11 years into this — that it’s fine to work long days,” she told me. “But it’s not good for you to work incessant long days, five days a week, 50 weeks a year for 10 years.”

One has to wonder whether Trump’s departure isn’t a big part of Maddow’s desire to look for new pastures. It’s one thing to make that hay while the sun shines, to stretch that analogy a bit further. Trump’s departure has left serious clouds over MSNBC — and for that matter, CNN and Fox to some extent too. MSNBC’s prime-time July ratings were down 37% from the same period a year earlier,  and Maddow still falls well behind both Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. She still has MSNBC’s top-rated show, but came in fourth overall in July. Conducting that grind for an audience more than a third smaller isn’t going to make it feel any easier.

MSNBC can’t afford to let Maddow go, and not just because of the ratings she gets. Agree or not with her perspective, Maddow is their best broadcaster in prime time by far. They won’t have a ready replacement for her in that space, nor in live coverage of Democratic primary campaigns in 2022. They may have to allow her more time off, presumably starting in 2023, to keep her on board, but they will throw in the kitchen sink to keep Maddow if she can be kept on at all.

Maddow knows that, too. Her change in representation to a hardball artist like Ari Emanuel strongly suggests she’s leveraging that for some more flexibility, not a retirement from a network platform. Besides, if she wants to see how that path works, she can just cast a glance at the career of her former mentor Keith Olbermann and see how well he’s done in the podcast/self-publication space. That will keep her in place, even if it’s almost entirely on her own terms, when the midterms get under full steam early next year.