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Ari Melber: ‘Political TV is Like Kindergarten’

Ari Melber 304It’s not often a cable news fill-in stint lasts longer than a week, but a serious car accident involving MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell in April thrust Ari Melber into a two-month substitute hosting role.

As O’Donnell returns to host the “Last Word” tonight, and Melber rejoined the cast of “The Cycle” this afternoon, Melber tells TVNewser about the highs and lows of filling in on the primetime show, which, during his nine-week run as host, was down -17% in viewers and -22% in A25-54 demo viewers compared to the previous nine weeks hosted by O’Donnell.

TVNewser: What went through your mind initially when tasked with filling in for Lawrence semi-permanently?

Melber: Initially, I got a call that Lawrence was hurt in a car accident, so the scare and uncertainty of that was going through my mind. It’s very jarring and sad to hear that someone you know and look up to was hurt in an emergency, and the first few times I talked with his staff, they were still distraught and processing everything. So when you get from that reality to ‘how was the show at first,’ basically, it was unlike any other anchoring I’ve done before — probably with less initial focus on the shows themselves, because the staff and audience were more focused on any information about Lawrence.

TVNewser: You’ve done solo hosting before, but never for this long and this high profile. Were there any rough spots or growing pains?

Melber: Filling in a few nights goes by pretty fast, but when you do a show for over two months it starts to become your schedule. I guess the rough spots were basic transitions — figuring out a sleep schedule to stay alert at night, finding new times to exercise — the kind of details that only come up if you’re struggling to make small talk.

TVNewser: Obviously he was recovering, but did you have any communication with Lawrence during your fill-in stint? If so, what advice did he give you?

Melber: We connected a few times, and of course it’s more his place than mine to share anything he wants to make public. Generally, I can say he always kept his sense of humor about everything. Whenever I’ve filled in, he does not micro-manage from afar. He believes in his staff and whomever is in the chair, which is cool. As for other colleagues, the best advice I’ve gotten about guest hosting is ‘respect the host’s format, but don’t try to be that host.’ So political television is like kindergarten — just be yourself.

TVNewser: What was the biggest surprise for you in terms of the daily grind of hosting a nightly primetime show vs. occasionally filling in vs. co-hosting “The Cycle.”

Melber: How fundamentally different news and information plays out at different times of the day. People often refer to the “24 hour news cycle” as the endless flow of news and faux-news on TV and the Internet, and that has its drawbacks. But “The Last Word” really is the last take on the news for msnbc’s live prime time lineup, and it’s a distinct challenge to figure out how to approach stories that have been kicking around all day, or choose which new stories to add, while trying to convince viewers something is a real story even if it hasn’t been covered at all that day. That’s pretty different from the flow of the afternoon, where more stories are breaking, or haven’t been fully talked through yet.

TVNewser: You’re obviously happy for Lawrence to be healthy and return, but is it a little bittersweet to lose a primetime gig now that you were getting into the groove of it? Do you hope to be back hosting primetime sooner rather than later?

Melber: No, I’m psyched to be back in the groove at The Cycle, and to keep filling in when needed. The Last Word stint ended Thursday. Friday I filled in for The Rachel Maddow show, and Monday I’m back at The Cycle full time. I love covering politics and news, and MSNBC has let me do that a bunch of different ways, so that’s been pretty sweet so far.

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