Megyn Kelly isn’t playing politics anymore – at least not on camera.
The former Fox News anchor vowed to put aside the hard-edged interviewing style that made her famous and turned her energy Monday full-bore into the launch of a new morning program, in one of the bigger bets NBC has made on a single talent since, perhaps, it named an unknown Conan O’Brien in 1993 to succeed David Letterman at the helm of its wee-hours “Late Night” franchise.
Kelly told a live studio audience in the opening moments of her new “Megyn Kelly Today” that “I’m kind of done with politics for now,” and said she hoped instead to help viewers “get yourself through the day, to have a laugh with us, a smile, sometimes a tear – and maybe a little hope to start your day. Some fun! That’s what we want to be doing.”
The mission represents a marked change for the popular news host whose prosecutor-like style in Fox News Channel’s primetime made her a star. Kelly has no experience hosting a morning program of this sort, and just months ago was anchoring a Sunday-night newsmagazine program on NBC that at times proved polarizing. But she put all of that in the rear-view mirror Monday as she re-introduced herself to the audience, talking about her upstate New York roots and introducing her husband and mother to the in-studio crowd and the audience at home. It’s a technique that was put to good use by NBC colleague Jimmy Fallon in the opening moments of his run on the network’s late-night franchise “Tonight.”
NBC is packaging Kelly as part of its “Today” empire. She’s coming on after colleagues Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie deliver most of the headlines – and a lot of lighter fare, as well. And she’s on before Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford start sipping wine and delving into less serious topics. As the rest of the “Today” anchors came on set to toast her, Kelly offered the assemblage mimosas, meant to represent a transition between the wake-you-up coffee served on the show’s first two hours and the alcohol consumed in its last. But there was no talk of current events: No reference to the devastation in Puerto Rico, or the protests that took place over the weekend across the nation’s various NFL games.
Kelly has long harbored ambitions of filling in the space in the TV-news business once occupied by Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey. “Diane Sawyer left her anchor role. Oprah has moved to the OWN network and is doing a different thing now. So why not me?” she told Variety during an interview in 2015.
On Monday, she dove into the role, hosting a multi-segment visit with the cast of “Will & Grace,” the popular NBC sitcom that is getting a reboot this season. She bantered with the rest of the “Today” crew in a taped segment that had Kelly biking to work with Al Roker, and getting advice from Kathie Lee Gifford (“Be authentic!”) as she sat in the makeup chair. The show ended with a long field piece that had Kelly journey to the Windy City to meet a 77-year-old Chicago nun who was working diligently to improve a tough neighborhood. Sister Donna Liette and some of her supporters also joined Kelly in the studio. The title of the segment, “Settle For More,” is borrowed from Kelly’s recent memoir, and looks as if it might be a regular feature on the show about people trying to improve their situation in life. “If you want change, you must seek it,” Kelly told the crowd.
NBC managed to weave promotional support from advertisers into the opening program – much like Oprah Winfrey did over the years. And while there was no mass giveaway of new cars to the in-studio crowd, as Winfrey did in 2004 when she gave free Pontiacs to more than 250 audience members, Kelly was able to offer one man a free trip to California to see a “Will & Grace” taping, courtesy of United Airlines. Coldwell Banker and Ace Hardware coughed up checks on stage to help Sister Liette continue her work. Unilever and General Mills were among the sponsors running multiple commercials during Kelly’s debut.
Daytime TV is notoriously difficult, and reliable operatives including Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira have faced headwinds in their attempts to launch programs similar to Kelly’s. NBC is clearly hoping the force of her personality and an inspirational backstory lend the host an edge – not the polarizing kind – with a broader audience that it was reaching with the previous inhabitant of the 9 a.m. timeslot.
Will Kelly be able to maintain the lighter, inspirational tone of her debut in a swirling news cycle that seems utterly consumed with politics and cultural clashes? Will she want to bring her hard-news chops to bear now and again? The magic of a morning program is that it always has another broadcast waiting in the wings that might allow its host to try those ideas out.