Meet the Power Agent Who Brokered the Deal for Rachel Maddow’s Replacement

Alex Wagner’s debut this week as the new host of MSNBC’s 9 p.m. hour on Tuesdays through Fridays capped a year’s worth of speculation about who would land Rachel Maddow’s powerhouse time slot, now that she was stepping back from hosting five nights a week to pursue a slew of multiplatform creative projects. For Wagner, it more than validated her decision to return to MSNBC seven years after the network canceled her previous show. In the interim, the 44-year-old newswoman had raised her profile by cohosting Showtime’s The Circus alongside John Heilemann.

And for Henry Reisch, Wagner’s agent at William Morris Endeavor—which has so many MSNBC clients that some joke the agency runs the network—it was a major coup in a long career spent cultivating TV-news talent. Reisch, 63, cuts a lower profile than Endeavor honchos Ari Emanuel and Mark Shapiro, who were the driving forces behind Maddow’s recent megadeal. But Reisch has been at it forever—2022 marks his 35th year in the business—and he knows the rapidly transforming TV-news landscape as well as anyone, which is why I was game when Endeavor offered him up for an interview.

After ditching his first job as a lawyer back in 1987, the Long Island–born music fanatic got his start in the mailroom of what was then called the William Morris Agency, quickly climbing the ladder and assembling a roster of news luminaries that included Bob Woodruff (now of ABC News) and John Roberts (now of Fox News). Today his clients collectively anchor 45 hours a week on MSNBC (Wagner, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, Joy Reid, Lawrence O’Donnell, Stephanie Ruhle, Tiffany Cross) and 60 hours on CNBC (Jim Cramer, Joe Kernan, Kelly Evans, and others).

Although Reisch happens to live up the road from me, he’s vacationing on Shelter Island this week, so we had to do a video call. But that didn’t put a damper on our wide-ranging conversation, condensed and edited below, which covers everything you’d hope for from a longtime industry insider: the backstory of Wagner’s deal, the decline of cable news, the future of streaming, the implosion of CNN+, and lots more.

Vanity Fair: Tell me about how Alex Wagner got Rachel Maddow’s time slot.

Henry Reisch: Alex and I were, in the late fall of 2021, trying to figure out what another interesting step for her would be. She was doing incredible stuff with The Circus, but The Circus was once a week and there was just so much happening. So I began having conversations with various networks. When she left MSNBC seven years ago, she didn’t leave under the best of circumstances, but a lot of the people at NBC were people who she knew and respected and sort of kept relationships with. She was open. And so we made an arrangement where she was going to begin contributing. Truthfully, we weren’t really thinking about the Rachel thing at that moment. It was sort of like, let’s just go do this and see what happens. This was maybe in January of 2022. She started doing a lot of fill-in anchoring, and she started filling in for Rachel. But she and I weren’t really having that conversation about where it was gonna lead. It’s almost like we didn’t wanna jinx anything or be seen as going for it. We just wanted to be in the moment. I didn’t even have conversations with MSNBC about it for a really long time. Although this was literally, like, the best job in cable news.

So when did it start to become more serious?

I would say the very end of May or early June. A month before it was announced, I began having more persistent conversations with them. Like, What are we doing here? And just so we’re clear, we would like this job! They were very careful about it, very measured. And then there came the point where I got the call, and they were like, Let’s do it.

And when you say “they,” who were you primarily dealing with?

Jessica Kurdali, their head of talent negotiations. She replaced Elena Nachmanoff, who’d been in that role for decades.

Rachel stepping back from 9 p.m. seemed to set up the deck chairs for a few of WME’s clients. Aside from Alex, obviously, it seems like with less Rachel, it made sense to double down on Joe and Mika as the network’s other tentpole and give them that extra hour in the morning. And with Morning Joe getting that fourth hour, it then seems logical that Stephanie Ruhle would move to 11 p.m. to fill Brian Williams’s slot.

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