Megyn Kelly Finds Ratings Groove by Tackling Sexual Harassment

Megyn Kelly

Somebody familiar recently appeared on NBC’s new morning show “Megyn Kelly Today.” Her name is Megyn Kelly.

“I don’t give a damn if a woman shows up in a bikini to the office. That doesn’t invite or make it okay for her superior to harass her,” said Kelly on the Oct. 10 broadcast of her 9 a.m. NBC program, responding to recent comments made by Donna Karan. The fashion designer had suggested in an interview that women often invite sexual assault by dressing provocatively. “How about we not pile on, Donna?” asked the former Fox News anchor, who then railed against “rich, powerful, well-connected fashion moguls lecturing [women] on their clothing choices.”

Kelly then threw one more dart: “And speaking of fashion choices, here’s one for you: I’m done with Donna Karan.”

Now, that’s the Megyn Kelly many viewers know.

After a rocky early start that has drawn scrutiny, Kelly’s recent focus on matters of sexual harassment and gender inequality has drawn viewers to the fold. In recent days, she has nabbed exclusive interviews with victims making allegations about Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, and Mark Halperin. Audiences have responded. Viewership for the program among the audience most coveted by advertisers – people between 25 and 54 – rose 11% for the week ended Oct. 23 over the prior week, according to data from Nielsen. Overall viewership for “Megyn Kelly Today” surged 10% to about 2.34 million in that time period. The average viewership for Monday and Tuesday’s broadcast this week has been 2.5 million.

To be certain, the show faces challenges. It has been out-muscled by its main competitor, the syndicated “Live With Kelly and Ryan” that is distributed by ABC. And amidst a broader viewer pullback from broadcast-TV morning programs (compared with last year’s election-fueled viewership), ratings are down for the 9 a.m. program compared with last year. The average audience for the 9 a.m. hour of “Today” in the 2016-2017 broadcast season was 2.8 million people.

More viewers seem interested in Kelly’s take on some of the hottest topics of the day than they do in seeing her interview movie stars or exploring life hacks – two elements that are likely to continue as part of the program. “Our goal from the beginning was to present a smart, informative program that would uplift, inspire and empower,” said Jackie Levin, executive producer of “Megyn Kelly Today” in a prepared statement provided by NBC News. “Sexual harassment is not only dominating headlines, but is pervasive, affecting nearly half of women in the workplace, according to recent polls. Given it’s a topic that Megyn also feels very strongly about, it’s been a natural fit for her to cover in a way that has hopefully helped empower viewers.”

NBC News declined to make producers available for an interview.

Several observers sense Kelly’s coverage is helping her form a bond with viewers. “To me, this is a moment like Stephen Colbert had” after he took over “The Late Show” from David Letterman on CBS, said Caryn Ward, a longtime TV-news producer who is an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Colbert experienced ratings challenges when he started, then found new momentum as he began to focus on national politics, which is what he was known best for when he hosted Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” “When he was true to himself and delivered what his audience expected of him, his ratings went up,” she said.

“This is a moment for her when she can be more true to herself,” said Ward. Taking a stand on issues relevant to women “is what her audience looks to her for, and expects from her,” she added. “As long as she continues to be true to herself in that way, I think the ratings will continue.”

News cycles can change in an instant, particularly at a time when White House actions in a polarized America can force switches in coverage with a single tweet.  But the focus on sexual harassment of women, brought to the center of conversation by revelations of behavior by movie producer Weinstein and others, has created a cultural moment that may not subside quickly.

The topic seems to resonate with Kelly’s live audience – an element that was never present during her Fox News days. Viewers seem to appreciate Kelly’s ability to be direct. In recent interviews with attorneys of victims, she has been quick to stop them when she thinks they are speculating about the issue, even as she calls out companies and people who aid and abet corporate climates where harassment might take place.

“There’s a lot of audience unity on the topic, and I think it’s a very comfortable place where Megyn Kelly has some command,” said Chris Giglio, a former producer for “Dateline” who is now president of HL Strategic Solutions, a reputation-management adviser. “It’s an open question if the viewing public in the morning is going to want a daily diet of that going forward, but one thing we have learned since the election is that the rules of communication have really been rewritten.”

Of course, sexual harassment is not the sole focus of “Megyn Kelly Today.” The show has become a haven for recent authors of tell-alls and memoirs that discuss overcoming disease and adversity. There are “news you can use” segments, conversations with women grappling with breast cancer, and chats with celebrities of varying stripes: Phil Donahue, Dr. Phil, and Russell Brand. Other NBC News personnel visit the show with great regularity. There have even been musical segments, and visits from Kelly’s husband, Douglas Brunt, who on Tuesday’s show journeyed with her to a haunted-house-like attraction.

To succeed, the show will have to continue to knit together the Megyn Kelly viewers know – the Kelly who calls conversational balls and strikes and lobs a “What say you?” at guests who have to answer a burning question – with the one who is less well-known. That’s the Megyn Kelly who might rush through a cooking segment, make a bawdy joke or end a portion of the program with the phrase, “Lots of love.”

Sexual harassment issues may stoke viewership, but interest in the topic could ebb. “It’s inevitable that after a while, she’s going to have to do something else,” said Linda Steiner, a professor who studies gender issues in journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “On the other hand, it does seem to indicate that people like to see her in this kind of more hard-edged way.”