How MSNBC’s ‘The Cycle’ Won Me Over (Video)

Guest blog: A former NBC correspondent on why her initial criticism and dislike of the political chatfest have turned into admiration and respect.

There are two things in life that are much more enjoyable the second time. MSNBC’s “The Cycle” is the other one.  When the show debuted last June, it was loathe at first sight for me. Who were these four young hosts — I came within a thin gray hair of calling whippersnappers — and what gave them claim to expertise on anything? As one viewer commented on Huffington Post, when it joined the chorus of critics panning the program, “Bring back the adults to this time slot. I feel like I am watching a group of Disney musketeers talking politics.”

Now, I still have old ties to NBC that make me care deeply about its successes and failures. I worked as a correspondent and anchor for NBC in the early 80’s — covering all the self-imploding presidential candidates, from John Glenn to Jesse Jackson – and subbed on "Today" and so many other programs, I was beginning to think my full name was Mary Nissenson Fillinginfor. Back then, we used to say news magazine shows on NBC were cursed. Between the recent tribulations of "Rock Center" and the less-than-promising beginnings of "The Cycle," it looked to me like the old curse was still going strong.

So, when initial ratings for “The Cycle” were dismal and spiraling downward, none of its critics weren't surprised — and I wasn’t, either. “It doesn’t have a prayer,” Bob Beckel announced on Fox News' “The Five” – charging that all “The Cycle” amounted to was a poor knock off of his own show.

But MSNBC gets the last laugh this time – and its hosts a chance to savor their revenge by serving it to their doubters the fun way: piping hot and placed in front of a very big fan. Not only has “The Cycle” ratings improved, the longer it has aired, the more convincingly “The Cycle” has established itself as no mere rehash of its predecessors. In fact, it’s increasingly clear that executive producer Steve Friedman has accomplished something extraordinary in television: he's offering a fresh take on the political panel show, a format almost as old as the industry.

There is no star on "The Cycle."  Unlike “The Young Turks” for example, the “The Cycle’” has four co-hosts who are, in every respect, coequals. And they’re not just casually schmoozing — as the panel so often does on “The Five” – they’re presenting a solid political news show. Perhaps most striking, “The Cycle” breaks the mold of the political commentator, redefining who’s entitled to wear that title to comport with the tastes and expectations of its Gen-X audience.

Steve Freidman, MSNBC“What we try to do,” Friedman told me, “is a show that’s informative and fun. We take our topics seriously, but not ourselves.” If some baby boomers don’t take the hosts seriously either, I doubt Friedman’s losing sleep over it. It’s their kids he’s targeting: a generation as likely to be convinced by a tweet from a contemporary, as a pronouncement from the pantheon of political punditry.

Given the target audience, choosing all Gen-X co-hosts was fairly predictable. But, the way Friedman chose those hosts was not. In fact, one of his riskiest decisions was to include co-hosts who had neither the credentials, nor experience, to qualify as experts. As a result, two of his four panelists are best described as attractive audience contemporaries who are by no means pundits but are passionate and outspoken about politics. It proved to be a stroke of genius.

So, I think, was Friedman’s decision to give his audience something they’ve rarely if ever seen on a left-leaning cable station: more than the mere illusion of inclusion of the conservative viewpoint. Where else in the electronic liberal media can you hear a host arguing passionately in favor of assault rifles?

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S.E. Cupp may well be the quintessential Gen-X Republican: a pro-gun, pro-life hunter, who also happens to be an atheist and ardently pro-gay rights. Cupp boycotted CPAC this year for excluding gay conservatives. She’s also the only right-wing commentator I know of to publically denounce Rush and urge fellow Republicans to do likewise. 

But it hasn’t stopped liberal viewers from eviscerating Cupp in the social media. “The vitriol is just as nasty on the left as it is on the right,” S.E. told me in an interview, “But I decided to have fun with it and not take it too seriously.” To her credit, she does just that, with a good-natured reading of some of the most scurrilous comments she receives, in a segment she calls “S.E.’s Tweet bag.”

Cupp says the feedback was predictable. What she didn’t expect was becoming best friends with Krystal Ball, her liberal co-host, whom she describes as “kind, generous, lovely and inspiring.” The friendship between these two women reflects a special chemistry among all four panelists that explains why, even on the bleakest news days, “The Cycle” rarely leaves its viewers depressed or downtrodden.

Ball wasn’t unanimously accepted in her role as co-host at first. Some thought her too much of a political neophyte. As Ben Pershing pointed out in the Washington Post, “Ball’s sole experience is her congressional bid.” True enough, but that lone losing bid for Congress was a trial by fire few first-time candidates experience. When a smear campaign went viral it briefly made Ball the subject of international scandal. Anonymously released photos showed Krystal at a Halloween party (right next to her husband, incidentally) wearing a sexy but hardly revealing costume. But critics seized on the sex toys the couple jokingly posed with.

It didn’t have the effect her opponent may have hoped for. Ball held her ground and argued forcefully that the smear campaign was potent evidence of the double standards for men and women in politics.  “It gave me a platform on gender and sexuality,” she told me. “It gave me my initial opening into the world I’m in now. It wasn’t easy but I’m proud of the way I handled it.”

Krystal, who’s expecting a baby boy shortly, says her 5 year-old daughter, Ella, isn’t even remotely impressed by “The Cycle.” She is, however, rather taken by Salon’s senior political writer, Steve Kornacki, who until very recently was one of mommy’s co-hosts. (He’s been promoted to his own show “UP” on the weekend. His replacement on “The Cycle” has yet to be named.)

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I spoke with each of Kornacki’s co-hosts. To a one, they describe him as quirky, brilliant and immensely likable. They say he’s also a walking encyclopedia of political facts, fiction and trivia… the kind of guy who can probably name, not only every sitting member of Congress, but, also the candidates they had to beat to get there. Qualities that are likely to make him much missed on “The Cycle.” But, it’s a testament to his co-hosts’ integrity that they draw the line at praising Kornacki’s fashion sense.  It was occasionally so egregious, they tell me, someone had to run out before show time and buy new clothes for him before anyone would even think of letting him go on camera.

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The most cautious of the “The Cycle’s” four hosts, Kornacki, was always the first to put the brakes on, whenever a particular crisis or tragedy left the public and panelists outraged. “Outrage is too easy and too often becomes a crutch for people,” Kornacki told me. “Whenever that’s how everyone is responding, my reaction is ‘Let’s wait. Let’s take a couple of steps back here.’ I think it’s important and intellectually valuable to ask why something happened, instead of simply saying it’s terrible.”

If Kornacki served as the brakes on “The Cycle”, Tourè is the sparkplug. An author and pop culture commentator (whose new book on Prince,  “I Would Die For You,” is about to be released), he’s extremely bright, supremely self-confident and has a long-running love affair with controversy.  It makes Friedman the best, yet most dangerous kind of E.P. for him. I worked with Steve Friedman (please just shoot me now) 30-plus years ago. He still has the same production style: give talent space.

He angered many viewers by referring to what he called Mitt Romney’s “n……ization” of Obama. (He didn’t use the ellipses. He was making the point that Romney was trying to paint Obama as angry and hostile.) Even his apology outraged viewers — something for which he refuses to apologize. “It wasn’t impromptu. It was well-thought out,” he explained to me, referring to his original incendiary word choice.  “But it’s a word you can’t use in polite society, even if intellectually it’s the only honest and accurate one.”

Think of Tourè as the liberal version of S.E. Cupp… only on steroids. Between the comments left on “The Cycle” website and the abundant jibes you can find almost any day on Twitter, it appears Tourè is the host viewers most love to hate. But controversy is pure gold in television. And, as Jon Stewart has convinced even the most serious journalists, lightening up a little now and then doesn’t hurt either.

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Like his co-hosts, Tourè still marvels at the incredibly short time between being tapped for “The Cycle” and hitting the airwaves. “It was just three weeks,” he said in our interview. “One dry run. No rehearsals. And, boom, you’re on television.” For all his bravado, it’s clear he’s just as thrilled as his co-hosts to be on “The Cycle” — though not nearly as surprised to be offered the gig as they were.  For a year, Tourè was a human projectile, shooting himself from a cannon into Steve Friedman’s office on an almost daily basis, with a never-ending list of new programs he could star in.  “Want to hear one of his worst?” Friedman asks me impishly. “It was a kind of ‘Playboy After Dark’ format where, every night, Tourè would host a party, going table to table schmoozing with his guests.” Gives you a whole new appreciation for “The Cycle” doesn’t it?

As for all those comparisons to “The Five” and Beckel’s own doom and gloom prediction… It’s true that Fox’s political panel also has multiple, coequal co-hosts. But that’s where all resemblance to “The Cycle” ends.  Far from being breezy and upbeat, “The Five” virtually reeks of cynicism, has far fewer guests than “The Cycle” and invariably digresses into questionably relevant, tasteful, or even interesting topics.

The last time I tuned into “The Five” they were debating the weighty question: “Is Lent important enough to warrant giving up salami?” Tough one! But, I think I’ll give up “The Five” instead.