NBC’s Megyn Kelly Problem (Column)

The network’s vaunted new hire has whiffed her first opportunities to shine. Did NBC make a $17.5m mistake?

It’s still months before Megyn Kelly’s new NBC daytime show is set to premiere, but it already feels like the former Fox News anchor has overstayed her welcome. Only three weeks into her Sunday-night newsmagazine show — a “Dateline” style piece, structured around her interviews with high-profile “gets” — Kelly’s star is dimmer than ever. It’s a far cry from where she was just a year ago.

2016 was a banner year for Kelly: After a wave of flattering media coverage, she led round-the-clock election coverage for Fox News — anchoring one of its highest-rated programs, “The Kelly File,” and shoring up the network’s credibility on women’s issues as it reported on, and sometimes sparred with, then-candidate Donald Trump. If Bill O’Reilly was the face of the network, Kelly — a photogenic former lawyer — was the face of the future. It was Kelly’s complaints that finally ended Roger Ailes’ reign of sexual harassment at the network; an indication of changing times, a changing company, and Kelly’s worth to the network.

Then in January, Kelly left Fox News, and since then whatever high-wattage star power she had has waned considerably. This month she’s been hosting “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly,” an opportunity for theoretically harder-hitting coverage than what she’ll do in the fall when she takes over the network’s 9 a.m. timeslot.

By all measures, her “Sunday Night” effort been a disaster: Her interviews have been either ridiculed or loathed by the rest of the press, and the ratings reflect a distinct lack of interest. To be sure, newsmagazines around one anchor have a high failure rate, even for respected names like Bryant Gumbel, Connie Chung, and Jane Pauley. But Kelly’s problems go beyond ratings. Her June 18 episode, an interview with InfoWars’ Alex Jones, began as a problematic decision and snowballed into a PR nightmare. Kelly couldn’t handle either the interview or its fallout.

Even before all of this, there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Kelly’s upcoming foray in the 9 a.m. timeslot. Daytime television is a notoriously difficult nut to crack — dozens of shows, built around former news anchors and other personalities, have failed to succeed, even when they are helmed by otherwise well-liked personalities. Kelly has never emphasized intimacy or likability in her on-camera persona. Her style is legalistic and cool, with a brass-tacks elegance that can, at best, appear regal.

Compare this to Kelly’s fiercest competitor in the 9 a.m. timeslot: Kelly Ripa, a brash, bubbly personality who manages to be both inclusive and distinctive at the same time. Daytime TV is such an intimate and alchemical landscape that audiences’ most beloved anchors take on a kind of mythical quality — Oprah, Ellen, Katie — who are gossiped about and scrutinized as if they were members of a far-flung family. Ripa, a master of the form, was already, in all likelihood, going to eat Kelly for lunch (or is it breakfast?). Now that Kelly’s reputation on the rocks — and that Ripa has a new telegenic cohost in Ryan Seacrest — it’s hard to imagine Kelly making a dent in Ripa’s audience.

On top of all of this there’s the fact that Kelly has a history of cringeworthy statements about black people — and is about to debut in a timeslot that happens to draw a large African-American female audience. According to Nielsen data for the 2015-16 season, African-American women comprised 23.1% of the total TV audience in the (nearly synchronous) 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. time frame, making them the largest component of the daytime viewership base, ahead of white (16.3%), Hispanic (12.6%) and Asian (7.6%) women.

Given all of this, NBC’s logic in hiring Kelly — for an annual salary, according to industry sources, of $17.5 million — was already murky. Now, “Sunday Night” has called into question Kelly’s capacity to do her job appropriately. The entire rigmarole with Alex Jones was a series of unforced errors: Amateur decision-making, lightweight investigation, and vaguely defined motives. She has floundered in interviews on-camera and made to look either dishonest or unprofessional off-camera. And her essential sense of newsworthiness is oddly awry; after all of the hullabaloo defending her interview of Jones, she couldn’t manage to get the segment to coalesce around a news peg. So what is Megyn Kelly good at?

The answer is a lot more about identity than ability. Kelly’s cachet is that she is a thoughtful conservative woman — a kind of unicorn. Her demeanor carries with it a lot of posh worldliness; she’s tony and she knows it. On Fox News, her maternal concern about this newfangled world aligned her with her peers. But at the same time, her reasonably fair-minded consideration stood out; she offered a veneer of respectability in opposition to the at times crass politicking of its conservative pundits. She was centrist enough that some of the network’s most faithful despised her; her skepticism about Trump further alienated her from the network’s bread-and-butter base. Even colleague Sean Hannity got into a spat with her — a spat later mended, cheekily, on Twitter. But the division between her and her former colleagues was clear — enough that for liberal viewers peering at Fox News in frustration, Kelly became an occasional hero.

But outside of that context — a context which magnified her strengths and talents, because of how different she was from the network that nurtured her — Kelly has to rely not on the power of contrast but on her own resources. And so far, what we’re seeing is disappointing. On NBC, Kelly is didactic without being trustworthy; patronizing without being impressive. Her voiceover suggests doom without really proving it; there’s a scare-mongering side to her reportage. And, most importantly: She’s alienated everyone. At this point, Kelly’s most virulent critique comes from the right — the audience that she’s supposed to be helping deliver to NBC. The network is presumably hoping that centrist or center-right women will eventually tune in.

Perhaps well-heeled paranoia coming from someone who could be in your PTA meeting is not as appealing as it once was. But if Kelly’s move to NBC was both an attempt to cement her brand and a network gambit to draw a certain demographic of viewers, it has failed on both counts. It may be worth going back to the drawing board entirely with Megyn Kelly — to evaluate her strengths not just by what she is or isn’t, but rather by what she can actually do.

Updated: A previous version of this column said that Kelly is a Republican. In fact, she has stated that she is an Independent.  

 

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