MSNBC’s newest show The Cycle is unlike any other political talk show on cable. That may sound like a PR cliché, but unlike your usual assortment of cable news veterans, old-school journalists, and suit-and-tie pundits, The Cycle resembles more a collection of Generation X-er political geeks talking about their passions. All four hosts represent a newer, younger generation of political pundits.
As the show’s executive producer Steve Friedman explains, that design was on purpose: “It’s basically a dinner party show, unlike any other ensemble on television.” A forty-year veteran of the business, Friedman has produced a slew of ensemble shows including ESPN2’s Cold Pizza, The Early Show on CBS, and a little morning program called Today on NBC. “This is my computer,” he jokes, showing his college-ruled notebook and a pen. He may come from an older world of television, but he says that his goals with The Cycle don’t necessarily match that mentality.
The Cycle came about in the wake of Dylan Ratigan‘s abrupt departure from his MSNBC show. Friedman and executives decided to soft-launch an ensemble show with four distinct voices. “We wanted an ensemble show because we didn’t want the new person to be compared to Ratigan,” Friedman explains. “If we had just replaced him with a single host, reporters like you might’ve said ‘That’s who they replaced him with?'”
And so Friedman recruited a younger batch of frequent MSNBC guests to host the new show: controversial music journalist Touré, Salon‘s stat-obsessed political writer Steve Kornacki, former Democratic congressional candidate Krystal Ball, and outspoken conservative S.E. Cupp.
“It’s the personalities that set apart ensemble shows,” Friedman says, underscoring the network’s belief that these four are particularly unique host additions to a daytime landscape usually brimming with straight-reporting cable newsman types. Interestingly, their on-air dynamic is an accurate reflection of their off-air relationship.
“This is a great opportunity for me to slay dragons in front of an unfriendly audience,” Cupp says.
Touré is the eldest of the group, probably the most talkative, and definitely no stranger to controversy. Within the show’s first week, he drew criticism for suggesting the death of U.S. solider Pat Tillman was an intentional silencing by the American government; another week, he drew the ire of small government advocates when he advocated for a variety of government mandates. “He just loves to argue,” Cupp says of her co-host, pointing out that even at group dinners a conversation can’t go on without Touré playing devil’s advocate.
Kornacki, by contrast, was enlisted by Friedman as the “anti-Touré” — not politically, but characteristically. Friedman sees his two male hosts as a perfect juxtaposition: Touré pushes buttons and invites controversy; Kornacki is measured and intellectual in demeanor. Off-air and on-air, the other three “Cyclists” openly tease Kornacki for his “nerdy” ability to rattle off obscure polling numbers at the drop of a hat. During one show, the cast created a compilation video of the most neurotic things Kornacki has said on the program, and all enjoyed a good laugh at the result.
Cupp was chosen because, as Friedman describes, “the show needed someone who is not a card-carrying liberal.” Among the network’s non-liberal personalities, Friedman says, Cupp is “the best one.” She jokes that she never dreamed of hosting a show on MSNBC beside all the network’s openly liberal personalities; but she has relished the opportunity: “This is a great opportunity for me to slay dragons in front of an unfriendly audience,” she says. Her conservative fans, however, have had mixed reviews for her new job: “I’ve gotten ‘you’re a traitor,’ to ‘you’re so courageous,’ to ‘I will never watch you on that network.'”
Much like the Touré-Kornacki pairing, Ball was selected as the “anti-Cupp,” in the political sense. Before her television career, she was a 29-year-old liberal congressional candidate in Virginia. Shortly thereafter, she made the rounds as a “Democratic strategist” on Fox News and MSNBC. She credits her on-air experiences with Touré during Ratigan’s “Mega Panel” as helping shape her comfortability with The Cycle‘s format. And even with the stresses of hosting a cable news program, Ball says “running for Congress was way harder,” especially in terms of having the time to spend with her young daughter.
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