In addition to widespread criticism and sluggish ratings, Megyn Kelly is facing another impending crisis. After three weeks on TV, celebrities aren’t rushing to sit down with her.
A number of publicists who spoke to Variety expressed discomfort with the idea of booking their clients in the third hour of “Today,” which has now been retitled “Megyn Kelly Today.” These publicists, however, said they are still eager to take their talent to other blocs of the morning show. “I’m not booking anyone on her show,” says a high-powered publicist, with a roster of big names, who asked for anonymity due to her overall relationship with “Today.” “I literally haven’t pitched anyone even from right out the gate. The buzz that is out there is so bad.”
Another well-known publicist, who represents one of the celebrities who has appeared on Kelly’s show, wasn’t pleased with the interview. “I won’t plan to have others go on,” the publicist said. “None specifically have been offered or asked to, but it’ll be my preference not to.”
Celebrities are a sweet spot for daytime TV. Katie Couric launched her talk show on ABC in 2012 with a gushy interview with Jessica Simpson, who revealed her post-baby body for the moms watching at home. Meredith Vieira landed Jennifer Lopez in 2014. And despite those big gets, viewers still didn’t tune in, which led both shows to being cancelled after two years.
“Ellen,” “Live with Kelly and Ryan” (which goes up directly against “Megyn Kelly”) and “The View” frequently lure star-studded guests. Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, who appear on the fourth hour of “Today,” have attracted the likes of Tyler Perry, Andrew Garfield, Brooke Shields, Judd Apatow and “Dear Evan Hansen” lead Ben Platt in recent months.
Over the summer, sources tell Variety that producers from Kelly’s show made a trip to Los Angeles to sell the big publicity firms on the new hour of “Today,” promising a lighter, more inspirational Kelly that viewers hadn’t seen before. However, according to an insider who attended one of the meetings, the team didn’t seem to have a clear direction of the show they were pitching. Kelly didn’t fit into a box like Ellen DeGeneres or Dr. Oz. And as a result, not too many celebrities jumped onboard.
Fast-forward to the first episode. Kelly surprised audiences when she debuted on Sept. 25, swearing off politics entirely. Instead, she sat down with the cast of NBC’s “Will & Grace.”
That interview grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons. Kelly made an ill-received joke about a super fan’s sexual orientation, which led actress Debra Messing to post on Instagram that she was “dismayed” by Kelly’s remarks and regretted going on her show. Two days later, Kelly offended Jane Fonda with an off-putting question about her refusal to talk about plastic surgery. (“We really want to talk about that right now?” Fonda huffed, seated next to her co-star Robert Redford.)
Publicists for Messing and Fonda declined to comment.
Outside of other actors on the NBC payroll—the casts of “This is Us,” the women of “Saturday Night Live,” Elizabeth Hurley who stars on E!’s “The Royals,” as well as Edie Falco (“Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders”)—Kelly’s show has lacked the kind of star power that Oprah used to display. Part of what made Winfrey (who Kelly has cited as a model for her show) the queen of daytime was her ability to mix segments about real people and Hollywood all in one hour.
On a recent episode, Kelly opened with a splashy exclusive—Lauren Sivan, who for the first time on TV, told her harrowing story about how she was forced to watch mogul Harvey Weinstein masturbate in front of her in a restaurant. After that powerful interview, Kelly had lined up her colleague Savannah Guthrie, who was plugging her children’s book “Princesses Wear Pants.” On other days, Kelly’s show hasn’t had any celebrity guests, instead focusing on human interest and lifestyle segments. And for part of this week, Kelly was joined by an impromptu sidekick: Al Roker, who used to steer the hour before Kelly took over.
A spokesperson for NBC denies that “Megyn Kelly Today” is having trouble securing guests. “We have celebrities booked for weeks and months to come,” a network rep said. When asked by Variety for specific names coming up, NBC listed Miles Teller, Goldie Hawn and “SNL’s” Alec Baldwin.
In launching a talk show, Kelly faces a challenge of a genre that in recent years has had far more misses than hits. Aside from that, there’s the other elephant in the room — Kelly carries heavy baggage from her years as the star anchor of Fox News, where she extolled her political views and shot up to superstardom battling with then-candidate Donald Trump.
One publicist said they didn’t want their client to schmooze with Kelly, because her brand is too alienating, as a result of her association to the conservative-leaning news network. “I don’t even know if it’s as much her as it is Fox News,” the publicist said. “Because she came from Fox News, she was set up for failure because the industry is so polarized now and no one wants to touch anything associated with Trump.”
Insiders on Kelly’s show push back against the notion that she hasn’t transitioned from cable news into a seasoned celebrity questioner, pointing to segments she’s done with Russell Brand, Isla Fisher and Morgan Freeman. Power publicist Stan Rosenfield, who represents Freeman, told Variety: “Morgan had a very good experience on the show and looks forward to returning.”
On TV, Kelly hit it off with Brand. However, the interview showcased one of the hazards of steering clear of politics when there are so many intersections with pop culture nowadays. Kelly missed the opportunity to ask the comedian and author about his big Twitter feud with Donald Trump. An hour later, Brand appeared on “The View” where he unloaded on the president.
Other publicists say they are still waiting to deliver a verdict. “I am in the middle at the moment, leaning towards not booking for now,” said one publicity veteran who runs a PR company. “What I have seen so far hasn’t been great. I am open to see how she does and if there is improvement, then I would more likely book. I am just not sure what type of celeb interviewer she is. She’s awkward at the moment.”
Historically, the “Today” booking team has secured guests for all four hours of the NBC morning juggernaut. While no new talent bookers were hired for “Megyn Kelly Today,” certain team members’ roles were shifted to focus solely on the show, giving Hollywood publicists the option to turn down offers for their clients to appear on Kelly’s specific hour.
It’s not helping that the ratings for Kelly’s show have been lagging. Though she had a slight spike at the start of her third week, the 9 a.m. hour of “Today” with Kelly is down 30% from last year when “Today’s Take” with Tamron Hall and Roker filled the hour. But all programs, including competitor “Live With Kelly and Ryan,” are down in double digits from last year because of the high interest in the 2016 presidential election. Still, “Live” is beating “Megyn Kelly” by 17% in the national rating.
“She posted her highest ratings yet in the key demo Monday after the second week on the air,” an NBC insider said. “Everyone knows ratings always fluctuate at the start of a new show.”
Meanwhile, others say that NBC deserves some of the blame for the show’s inauspicious start, by not creating a vehicle that plays to Kelly’s strengths. The show’s executive producer, Jackie Levin, was hand-picked by NBC News president Noah Oppenheim. Her previous specialty at “Today” was booking books – not celebrities. (Cases in point: Brand and Fisher both sat down with Kelly to promote their new books.) Plus, the network built a live-studio audience, which may have set expectations too high and created a strange disconnect between “Megyn Kelly Today” and the other hours of the broadcast.
NBC hasn’t enlisted Kelly on breaking news coverage, which is what turned her into a household name on Fox News. At her last job, Kelly stunned as a highly-skilled political commentator, who had no problem taking on Karl Rove, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich.
After the Las Vegas massacre, Kelly’s show was preempted and she didn’t appear on TV at all, though she was prepared to go on that day. NBC made the decision to keep rolling coverage with co-hosts Matt Lauer and Guthrie, without having Kelly join them at the anchor’s desk. An NBC rep says that “it’s different every time” and Kelly will be asked to cover breaking news in the future.
An industry insider close to Kelly says that NBC was ready for the negative reviews in her early days. The source believes that her astronomical salary splashed in the press—which has been reported as $17 million a year—has made her an easy target.
“Of course, there are going to be kinks in the first weeks, but people are being negative and unfair,” the source said, comparing her to coverage to other new talk show hosts. “[Stephen] Colbert got killed his first week and first month.”