Former ‘West Wing’ writer, Moynihan aide gets his shot in MSNBC’s prime-time

By David Bauder, AP
Monday, September 27, 2010

O’Donnell gets his shot on MSNBC

NEW YORK — As Lawrence O’Donnell prepares to join MSNBC’s prime-time lineup, he’s proven that his years in politics have taught him the art of lowering expectations.

“The only way this can possibly work is if everybody here is much, much better at their jobs than I am,” O’Donnell said in a conversation at his Rockefeller Center office.

“I have no broadcasting training. No one’s ever said to me, ‘This is how you read a TelePrompter.’ They just pointed to it and said, ‘It’s over there.’”

Vice President Joe Biden is his guest Monday night on the premiere of “The Last Word.”

O’Donnell carries a varied background to the show. He was a former aide to the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, worked in Hollywood writing scripts for “The West Wing” and wrote a political column for New York magazine. A lengthy strike by TV writers led him to call MSNBC and say he’s “desperately available.”

Network executives took notice when O’Donnell filled in for Keith Olbermann for several weeks earlier this year and the ratings held up well. MSNBC saved money and drew a larger-than-anticipated audience by airing an Olbermann rerun each night at 10 p.m., but was still on the lookout for something new. O’Donnell’s entrance allows MSNBC to repeat its three prime-time hours starting at 11, putting the shows in sequence to run from 8 to 11 p.m. on the West Coast.

“He’s the type of person that you want to hear at the end of the day,” said Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s chief executive. “He’s very thoughtful, experienced and he’s got this elegance when he talks.”

O’Donnell’s experience on the network was also key. He’s a familiar face to regular MSNBC viewers, as was Rachel Maddow when she got her own show. It’s less chancy than starting from scratch with someone completely new.

Griffin envisions O’Donnell recounting the drama of a day in political life such as an episode of “The West Wing.” His competition is Greta Van Susteren at Fox News Channel, the ratings leader in the time slot, and the first part of Anderson Cooper’s nightly newscast on CNN.

The 10 p.m. rerun was starting to feel stale and it was important for MSNBC to get a fresh hour of programming, said Andrew Tyndall, a news consultant who publishes The Tyndall Report on TV news content. The host almost doesn’t matter as long as the show fits MSNBC’s left-of-center brand. Maddow established her own style and identity after getting on the air, he said.

O’Donnell is “definitely not a big enough name to get people to tune in” on his own, he said.

Paul Levinson, head of Fordham University’s communications department, said O’Donnell “has a real sense of dignity and is smart as a whip.” He said he could team with Maddow for quieter, less confrontational programming than shows hosted by Olbermann and Chris Matthews.

O’Donnell said he doesn’t want a loud, argumentative program and cites Maddow as an influence.

“She’s had conversations with people on television who believe that her daily life is a sin, and yet has a civil conversation,” he said. “She’s my model for that, and I really admire her.”

He plans to rely on guests, perhaps more so than other colleagues, and one week’s lineup makes O’Donnell tough to pigeonhole. After Biden, the show has scheduled New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, White House adviser David Axelrod, Meghan McCain and Levi Johnston for opening week.

His executive producer is Izzy Povich, who used to work with Olbermann.

“If I come up with nothing, we’ll go with Izzy Povich’s idea, the best producer MSNBC has,” O’Donnell said. “That makes me comfortable. The more I have to rely on me, the more uncomfortable I am.”

EDITOR’S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)

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