Analysis: Megyn Kelly is an unstoppable force in TV news. But harnessing her power isn't cheap.
Megyn Kelly and Fox News have had a whirlwind affair. Ever since the 21st Century Fox-owned cable-news outlet launched her “Kelly File” at 9 p.m. in October of 2013 — its first major change to its primetime lineup in more than 11 years – both sides have reaped a harvest of viewership, ad sales, and media buzz.
Now the two partners must consider whether they would be better off without each other.
The answer may be a resounding “No.” While an anchor of Kelly’s caliber, presence, and renown would be a major get for any number of TV-news outlets, it’s not clear whether any of them would want to fork over the money that appears to be involved in her current talks with Fox News. Kelly has been receiving a sum around $15 million in the last year of her current contract and, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, has proposed a new salary of more than $20 million during recent negotiations.
Getting a rival outlet to match that sum is likely to pose a challenge, according to people familiar with the situation. Consider the fact that Robin Roberts is believed to pull down between $10 million and $14 million as a co-anchor at ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the nation’s most-watched morning-news program, according to a recent Variety survey of industry salaries, or that Katie Couric, at the height of her popularity, was reported in 2008 by the Journal to be earning an annual salary of $15 million to anchor “CBS Evening News.”
Making matters more complex is the fact that many Fox News counter-suitors have been spending money of their own. ABC News now must shoulder a hefty salary for Michael Strahan, who has joined “Good Morning America” as a co-anchor with Roberts and George Stephanopoulos. CNN recently signed primetime anchor Anderson Cooper to a new, multi-year deal that keeps him from co-hosting the syndicated morning program “Live” with Kelly Ripa. NBCUniversal is believed to be on the hook to pay out a contract to Billy Bush, who recently left the network in the wake of a controversy involving Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. There is continued speculation that NBC may be paying money to Josh Elliott, the former “GMA” news anchor who moved to NBC Sports for a few years, but exited his contract early.
To be sure, where there’s a will, there’s a way. If a TV honcho thought Kelly’s star power would boost ratings and be economically feasible, money might not be a barrier.
Yet even Kelly is said to be “realistic” about her ability to pull in the same salary that Fox appears prepared to offer somewhere else, according to a person familiar with her thinking. This person said the anchor is generally happy with her role at Fox News but also wishes to find a way to spend more time with her children. She is known to hang around the Fox News offices until late at night, the better to have a short post-mortem with the staff of her “Kelly File” after the program ends at 10 p.m., and then take care of various tasks.
Because the network has traditionally rarely tinkered with its programming formula, anchors tend to stay at Fox News for years. What’s more, Fox News and its sister, Fox Business Network, have welcomed veterans, and they also stick around. Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, for example, seem well entrenched in Fox Business slots. People do leave Fox News for jobs at other outlets – Paula Zahn and Allisyn Camerota both found new steps at CNN – but it is the exception, not the rule.
Kelly has a new team at Creative Artists Agency that is in the mist of sussing out whether she might have viable offers elsewhere. Among the people working on her behalf is Matt DelPiano, who has typically represented actors including Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin. Alan Berger, a veteran of TV-news deals, is also involved, according to people familiar with the matter, but it’s DelPiano with whom Kelly is close.
A Kelly departure could also crimp Fox News, which has not publicly pointed to an immediate successor for her. Kelly’s willingness to grill Republican guests and push back on conventional wisdom has been good for Fox, which has one of TV’s older set of viewers. Her presence is a nod to a rising generation of audience that is interested in a greater diversity of viewpoints.
It’s not immediately clear who might take a slot vacated by Kelly. Harris Faulkner, a Fox News veteran who has anchored weekends and daytime, has appeared at times to have support from executives, but in more recent weeks, so too have Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Shepard Smith. Fox News is likely to need to fill its 7 p.m. hour in just a few weeks. Brit Hume has been filling in for the departed Greta Van Susteren, but is at present expected to stay only through the coming presidential election.
Rival TV-news outlets may be able to offer Kelly money or prestige, but there’s one thing they cannot give her: the audience lead-in served up to her most nights by Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly has two decades on the air, but still wins big numbers. His “O’Reilly Factor” nabbed an average audience of 3.1 million viewers in the third quarter of this year, far more than 8 p.m. competitors Anderson Cooper or Chris Hayes. Kelly is no slouch herself, snaring about 2.94 million viewers in the same time period. Should she move elsewhere, she would have to win them all by herself in prime time (who’s to say what Kelly might do on a morning-news program or a traditional evening-news broadcast).
It makes all the sense in the world to look around when a contract is set to expire, as Kelly’s is expected to do in July. But sometimes, when things are going your way – Kelly also has a much-anticipated memoir ready to launch as is involved in a scripted digital-video series for Go90 – it could make all the sense in the world to stay where you are.