MSNBC Goes "All In" on Chris Hayes (and It's Not Exactly a Safe Bet)

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Chez Pazienza
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As a guy who's been married and divorced three times I obviously have no problem admitting when I'm wrong. And I was certainly wrong about what Chris Hayes's new MSNBC show, All In, would look like. When I wrote about the audacious, revealing choice MS was making by casting Hayes as the new bedrock of its prime-time a couple of weeks ago, I figured that the network was going to, at the very least, tinker with the Chris Hayes morning show format so that while Hayes's personal depth and wonkishness would travel to weeknights, 8PM, the profoundly cerebral nature of the program as a whole would stay safely behind on the weekends.

Well, MSNBC apparently has much bigger balls than I thought, because last night's debut of All In proved that the network is banking hard on Hayes and what he's all about by going with the motto, "Let Chris Be Chris." I get the impression that "All In" slyly refers not just to what Hayes is bringing to the table on the subjects he cares passionately about but the commitment MSNBC is making to Chris Hayes and to a sense of news as a scholarly endeavor in general in prime-time.

Do I like the show? That's a tough question, actually. I'm not sure I like it so much as I admire it, and that's the pitfall MSNBC is going to have to dodge with a show that's as intimate as All In. Like Hayes's previous show, which has now been handed off to the entirely capable Steve Kornacki, his new vehicle focuses on an almost astonishingly small number of topics in an hour. It's a format that goes against everything we've come to expect from cable news prime. All In also features, as Hayes's Up did before it, loosely orchestrated panel discussions on the subjects the show chooses to concentrate on, something most news programmers would consider a death sentence at 8PM weeknights. It's in-depth, it's erudite, it's even occasionally tedious -- an unavoidable risk -- and it's like nothing else in prime-time on cable.

Put it this way: When your debut in the most important spot in a cable news network's lineup begins with a group of people sitting around talking about an oil pipeline rupture in Arkansas and what it says about our relationship with fossil fuels -- a news story that would traditionally be as toxic to ratings as the heavy crude spilling out of the Exxon Mobil Pegasus pipeline is to Mayflower, Arkansas -- and continues with the story for half the show, you've either got the full backing of the network in writing or you have access to some particularly damaging photographs of the network president and a small child.

The thing with All In is that you have to care about the subjects Chris Hayes obviously cares about. This puts the onus on Hayes to make you care about those subjects and stories. There isn't a thesaurus detailed enough to describe how bold a move like this is for a mainstream cable outlet in our current media climate. What Hayes is basically doing is providing the antidote to the current crop of cable news shows in prime-time that so many people claim to clamor for but what many generally won't watch when given the chance. Hayes isn't giving you what you want, he's giving you what he believes you need. While he's certainly feeding an overall confirmation bias -- it's very unlikely you're going to watch a show like All In if you're not predisposed to Hayes's largely liberal mindset; fair, but liberal -- he's absolutely not breathing fire at the typical subjects you're guaranteed to want to shout along with if you're a regular MSNBC viewer. He's trying to, dare I say it, inform you at 8PM.

Again, it's a hell of a risk. A philosophy like this is generally considered niche programming, the kind of thing that works fine on the weekend but which will never fly in prime-time. The question, of course, is whether it will in fact fly in prime-time. That remains to be seen. But there's no doubt that MSNBC thinks it will because it's apparently putting absolute faith in Hayes and his brand of thought-provoking television.