Now On a Ratings Roll, Chris Hayes Remembers When His Show Was ‘Written Off For Dead’

By A.J. Katz 

Chris Hayes is both invigorated and exhausted by the current news cycle.

“I don’t think any of us have ever worked harder,” Hayes told TVNewser in an interview Friday. The hard work is paying off.  In February, All In posted the network’s best 8 p.m. ratings since November 2008, when Keith Olbermann was host. The show, which Hayes has hosted for four years, has also defeated the 8 p.m. hour of AC 360 in total viewers for 3 consecutive months. Despite calling us out for our daily ratings Scoreboard in 2015, Hayes seems to be okay with it these days.

Hayes was in West Virginia this weekend for a town hall with Sen. Bernie Sanders that will air tonight. “We want to keep getting out into the country and talking to people about how they’re understanding what’s going on,” he told us.

TVNewser: Covering this president is obviously a challenging endeavor. Is this an exciting time or a daunting time?

Hayes: I think it’s both. The sheer amount of information to process, and even the basic enterprise of figuring out what’s true and what’s not is really labor-intensive in a way I don’t think it’s ever been before. The nature of the news cycle forces you to make a lot of decisions on what to focus on, you can’t just chase everything. I think the intensity of that is difficult. You feel wrung out at the end of every day. But it also feels incredibly important and vital and mission-directed.

TVNewser: Why are more folks watching All In than ever before?

Hayes: I think it comes down to three basic things. One, the show is better now than it has ever been. Second, the power of TV is really about familiarity and trust. Those things are not granted immediately. They take time to earn, and I think that the longer you’re on, and the more that you show you’re doing good work, the easier it is to earn that familiarity and trust. Third, it’s the macro environment we are in. The amount of attention now being paid to the news is probably unprecedented. A huge swath of Americans who you might consider marginal news consumers are really attuned right now.

TVNewser: Beyond your show, what has the rise in ratings across the network meant for staff morale?

Hayes: I think a huge part of what impacts morale is the way things are moving, as opposed to the specific numbers. When you feel like you have forward momentum, and you feel like you’re growing, it feels good. It definitely impacts morale in a positive way. No question. There’s a whole psychology that can happen when things go in the opposite direction. All In has been through that too. That’s less enjoyable and you can also psych yourself out. You have to be confident in the product you’re putting out and the editorial decisions that you’re making.

TVNewser: A number of outlets described you as a dead host walking not too long ago. All In won an Emmy last year, and your Back to Baltimore special was a Peabody finalist. How did you maintain your focus amid all the noise?

Hayes: I had to learn early on to block things out. This show has been written off for dead more times than I can count. I would be lying if I said I didn’t take some pleasure in proving some haters wrong. There were articles written with an attitude of certainty that time has belied. I remember the times when we had our biggest challenges with the show, which I think a lot had to do with our new-ness and the news cycle we were born into. A lot of TV is about timing. We started in a period where things were down for everyone. The thing I learned is you will drive yourself crazy if you read all of that stuff. The process is a little like baseball because it’s a daily thing. Even the best hitters in the Majors go 0 for 4 some days, but they have to shake it off and come in the next day. If you spend a lot of time wallowing in what people are saying about you, you make it impossible for yourself to perform.

TVNewser: When we interviewed you for our What’s Your Show series back in 2014, you said your editorial process was a “real learning curve about what stories you choose to do.” I imagine in the early days of the Trump administration that’s not the case?

Hayes: It’s still hard, but I think we have a more developed sense of what we’re trying to do and what the approach of the show is then we have ever had before. The challenge isn’t as much about what the show’s identity is, which we have a firmer grasp on, but rather the sheer volume of news.