“I’m kind of done with politics for now,” Kelly told the audience for her 9 a.m. talk show, “Megyn Kelly Today,” during her first broadcast in September 2017. Instead, she urged viewers to use her show to “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.”
In the end, her tenure at NBC News was extremely political — and anything but fun.
NBCUniversal canceled Kelly’s talk show Oct. 26, and she is likely headed toward a split with NBC less than two years after she was recruited from Fox News with a rich $17 million-a-year contract. Her downfall was hastened by surprising on-air remarks in which she defended the use of blackface for Halloween costumes. The incident was the last straw for NBC News colleagues. Now, the messy exit is another blemish for NBC News chairman Andrew Lack, who has faced a string of controversies since he took the top job at the news network in 2015. Lack led the charge to bring Kelly on board, but by several accounts the relationship between the two has soured.
As such, NBC News’ Megyn Kelly experiment offers a lesson for TV executives: It’s not enough to have a Big Anchor or a Big Personality. You also need to have a Big Idea that suits them.
“This is just the latest example of television executives betting millions that a star anchor from another network could be transplanted and revive the ratings,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of broadcast journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “It didn’t work when Katie Couric went from mornings to evenings and it didn’t work when Megyn Kelly went from evenings to mornings. They’re different formats, and not many anchors have the versatility to pull off both.”
Kelly’s fractured relationship with NBC did not stem entirely from the Oct. 23 segment regarding blackface. Indeed, the two sides have been in loose talks about devising a new role for the anchor, a clear signal that intense scrutiny of her morning program had begun to wear thin. The show typically captures around 2.4 million viewers, compared with the 2.8 million who usually watched a third hour of “Today” hosted by Tamron Hall, Al Roker, Willie Geist and Natalie Morales.
NBCUniversal and Kelly have entered discussions that are expected to result in her exit from the network, according to people familiar with the matter.
Fox News viewers knew Kelly well, but NBC audiences didn’t get much time with her before she assumed huge responsibilities. She launched a Sunday-night newsmagazine in June 2017 and quickly sparked controversy when she interviewed archconservative extremist Alex Jones. Meanwhile, NBC News also had to prepare Kelly for the bow of a new morning program — a gargantuan endeavor that requires lots of promotion and glad-handing with executives and audiences from local stations. Would anchor and network have been better served to spend six months to a year filing big stories and making appearances on “Dateline,” “Today” and “NBC Nightly News” before becoming one of the network’s five-days-a-week presences?
And while she was trying to ingratiate herself with NBC’s daytime audience, Kelly faced distractions, some of them self-created. She gained attention early on for scoring exclusive newsmaker interviews with sexual-assault victims. At the same time, there were awkward moments with celebrities, including a dig at actress Jane Fonda. The remark — a revival of the “Hanoi Jane” tag some Americans used to disparage the actress for protesting the Vietnam War — reminded viewers of the anchor’s “Kelly File” pulpit at Fox News, not of a broad-based morning-show host.
Kelly said she took on Fonda because the actress made repeated remarks about the way she was treated during a September appearance on “Megyn Kelly Today.” “Being a lady doesn’t always mean ignoring attacks. Sometimes it does mean throwing a sharp elbow to stand up for yourself,” Kelly told Variety in April. “I feel that’s what I did — and she hasn’t attacked me since.”
Kelly brought her no-holds-barred presence to morning TV at a time when talk of hot-button issues has never been more polarizing. Audiences are willing to jump on what they perceive to be offense with the click of the tweet button. Advertisers are more skittish than ever about consumer pushback. Kelly was willing to tackle topics that other hosts might not grapple with in a big public forum.
“The risk of this happening was foreseeable,” said James G. Sammataro, a partner at the Stroock law firm who often represents TV and radio stations in disputes with on-air personnel. From the start, industry observers questioned the logic of NBC News’ plan to turn Kelly into a morning TV personality, given her background and sharp elbows.
Kelly has always been true to herself. A regular segment on “Megyn Kelly Today” has been “Settle for More,” named for Kelly’s memoir about standing up for yourself and seeking just treatment. She’s never suffered fools, always pushed for answers during interviews. She took a lot of grief for her efforts at NBC News and continued to press forward.
But in doing so, she cast herself as being apart from the entity that hired her, an outsider who came to visit every weekday. NBC likes to position the “Today” team as a kind of family. And Kelly may have upset her new colleagues by analyzing some of NBC News’ many issues, such as its ongoing tangle with investigative reporter Ronan Farrow, or the ouster of Matt Lauer for alleged inappropriate sexual behavior.
NBC News never promised Kelly would be an instant success. “It’s not going to be perfect on Day One, and we’re not going to be in first place on Day Two — but I’d rather be holding our cards than anyone else’s,” Lack said in a meeting with affiliates in advance of the launch of Kelly’s 9 a.m. show last year.
With Kelly’s final arrangement expected this week, Lack has folded his cards, but not before roiling the ranks and adding another entry to the list of recent NBC News debacles.