Megyn Kelly occasionally reminds her morning viewers that she’s not big on exercise. And yet lately she’s been doing a lot of heavy lifting: trying to build an audience for a new TV show at a time when viewers can be hard to find.
In recent weeks, she’s endured several intense A.M. workouts as her NBC program “Megyn Kelly Today” has placed new emphasis on deeper dives into emotional topics. Kelly has hosted a group of transgender teens who came out on her show; interviewed a Stamford, Conn., firefighter about finding the bodies of children; and talked to a man who decided to forgive a son who killed the other members of their family. She explored all of these across multiple segments that in some cases took up the bulk of the show.
Yes, Kelly is still doing cooking demonstrations and giving away prizes. And she continues to tangle with hard-nosed attorneys and snare exclusive interviews with victims of sexual harassment. But she says she’s eager to delve into some of these emotional subjects with new depth and nuance. “Giving these segments more breathing room” differentiates the show, she tells Variety during an interview in her office at NBC’s 30 Rock headquarters. “I feel like if we do enough of those shows over time, people will understand they can turn to us for meaningful, respectful, strong storytelling,” she adds. “We are putting chips in the bank with our audience.”
The anchor realizes she has more to do to win viewers over. Her move to NBC News last year was one of the industry’s most scrutinized switches in recent memory. She rocketed to primetime stardom at Fox News Channel, suffering no fools on camera. “When I see B.S., I’ll call it out, no matter who is sitting in the chair across from me,” Kelly says. So expectations were high when NBC convinced her last year to jump ship to work on the morning program, a Sunday newsmagazine and political coverage. Fox News paid her $15 million in the last year of her contract there, according to a 2016 report in The Wall Street Journal.
But her journey from 9 p.m. on Fox News to 9 a.m. on NBC has not sparked an immediate ratings bonanza. “Megyn Kelly Today” has earned an average of 2.46 million viewers season to date as of March 25, according to figures from Nielsen. The show she replaced, a third hour of “Today” less reliant on a single personality, captured an average of 2.8 million in the 2016-2017 TV season. And one of her main time-slot competitors, the syndicated Disney program “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” has won an average of nearly 3.22 million in the current season.
“Maybe there was some initial expectation that this was going to go through the stratosphere, but I think patience is the optimal term,” says Dave Sederbaum, senior vice president of video activation at media-buying agency Carat. “It has been slowly but surely progressing,” he adds, and advertisers that buy”Today” have continued to support the show.
Kelly has been in a fishbowl since the show’s launch in September. Some early on-air hiccups sparked much commentary about whether she was suited to the largely female morning-TV audience and whether NBC News is getting its money’s worth given the size of her contract. Kelly admits her show is a work in progress.
“In my experience, it takes a show about a year to find its sea legs, to figure out who it is, and that’s true of me too,” says Kelly. “In morning television, it takes a while to change an audience’s viewing habits, and so I have to earn the trust of the audience, and I’m willing to work for it.” Her program has seen viewership rise 12% in the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programming – people between 25 and 54 – since October, her first full month on the air. Overall viewership has increased 8% since that time, according to Nielsen. On some occasions, a broadcast of the show has reached more than 3 million viewers.
She says NBC News shares similar expectations. “I’m just grateful I’ve been given a long runway to develop that relationship” with viewers, she adds. The show was recently nominated for a Daytime Emmy. In May of last year, NBC News Group Chairman Andrew Lack told affiliates that her show “is 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.”
Kelly takes pride in a recent broadcast that threw a spotlight on a horrific problem. The anchor interviewed mothers of severely disturbed children – sons who killed animals, terrorized siblings or sought out child pornography – who could find no help from psychiatrists or social workers. One of the mothers described how one of her other children kept a butter knife under a pillow in case of attack, and two of the women unexpectedly locked hands on camera for support. Audience response was so fervent around one of the women’s earlier appearances, Kelly says, that producers felt they had to address the topic in a bigger way, devoting multiple segments over the course of an hour to the subject.
“You can’t do that in a five-minute segment,” Kelly says. “Do you know how disrespectful that would be?”
When asked whether the deeper focus on social issues is reminiscent of “Donahue,” the landmark syndicated talk show that aired for 26 years, she acknowledges watching the program while growing up. Phil Donahue was an early guest on “Megyn Kelly Today,” and Kelly met him for lunch to hear his thoughts on TV. But she notes she watched lots of other programming, including “Judge Judy” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in her formative years. Donahue, she adds, told her he enjoyed being provocative on camera — getting TV stations switchboards to light up because of what viewers saw on screen. “Maybe it’s my 14 years in cable news, but I’m less enamored of controversy, even though I tend to find myself immersed in it often,” she says. “I’m sort of trying to go toward the light, as opposed to [rubbing] sandpaper.”
Before her morning program launched last fall, Kelly visited NBC affiliates like WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina, a station with a reputation for occasionally preempting programming it feels won’t suit its viewers. She talked to fans at a Durham Bulls baseball game, and WRAL general manager Steve Hammell recalls her signing autographs and throwing out the first pitch. He says Kelly’s show will stay on air. “There are times that she beats ‘Kelly and Ryan,’ and there are times she does not,” says Hammell, but “the viewers are seeing something that they like.”
Celebrities can be part of that mix under the right circumstances, but Kelly knew early on she did not want to host an hour that hinged on glitzy appearances. “There’s nothing wrong with hosting a celebrity who just wants to promote a project, but it’s just not exactly what I want to do on this program,” she says. “My general standard has been if they have something more they want to offer – some sort of wisdom, some sort of life advice, some sort of personal moment they want to share with the audience, I’m game. But if it’s solely to promote a vehicle, I think there are enough programs out there that they don’t need this 9 o’ clock hour to do it, and that’s worked out fine for me.” She recently did longer interviews with actress Tatum O’Neal and “This Is Us” star Chrissy Metz that took very personal turns. A visit from former “Happy Days” actress Marion Ross turned into a reunion with fellow show alums Anson Williams and Donny Most.
Kelly says she has no regrets about calling out actress Jane Fonda – an incident that made some showbiz publicists wary of bringing their stars to “Megyn Kelly Today.” During a September appearance on “Megyn Kelly Today,” the host had asked her about plastic surgery, and Fonda bristled at the time — and then revived the controversy in January during other media appearances. Kelly responded forcefully, suggesting Fonda had no business calling her out for asking reasonable questions, and even cited “Hanoi Jane,” a reference to the way some Americans disparaged the actress for protesting the Vietnam War.
“She attacked me repeatedly when we launched the show and I let it go, over and over. And then she renewed it in very personal terms. It became clear to me she was trading on it,” says Kelly.”I am trying to model for my children – all three of them, but especially my daughter. Being a lady doesn’t always mean ignoring attacks. Sometimes it does mean throwing a sharp elbow to stand up for yourself. I feel that’s what I did – and she hasn’t attacked me since.”
She intends to continue her other duties for NBC News, though NBC announced a few weeks ago her Sunday program has been recalibrated to accommodate her morning responsibilities. “I think I didn’t fully appreciate how much work the 9 a.m. was going to require of me,” she notes. Rather than doing weekly Sunday broadcasts, she anticipates doing special hours like one recently devoted to her interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
She also wants to delve into lighter topics when appropriate. She has been spotted running on a treadmill on the program, despite her reluctance to work out. And she will continue to offer segments on smarter living, and, yes, will do the occasional meet-and-greet with reality stars from the “Real Housewives” series on corporate sibling Bravo. If some people think she ought to stick to either serious or silly, Kelly says she can do both. “I insist that the world come to understand that no woman must choose between being strong and being fun, being tough and being liked,” she says. “It can all happen at once. You can be feminine and you can be strong. Stand by.”
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