Reporter's Notebook: 2017's Unanswered Media Questions

Murdochs Fighting Foxnews Illo - H 2016
Illustration by: Thomas Kuhlenbeck

Murdochs Fighting Foxnews Illo - H 2016

Will Megyn Kelly keep up her momentum? Will Bill O'Reilly return to TV? And more ...

2017 brought more questions than answers. Below, I've highlighted some of the most pressing media industry questions that have yet to be answered as the year comes to a close.

Broadcast Intrigue

Who will replace Matt Lauer on NBC's Today and Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning? Neither network has said a peep about the succession process. On Today, fourth-hour co-host Hoda Kotb has been holding down the fort and helping the early hours of the show to industry-leading ratings. Willie Geist, who hosts the Sunday version of the show, has been floated by insiders as a possible Lauer successor — but, in an interview with his hometown publication, Geist said he hasn't had "a word of conversation with anyone about it." The only consensus seems to be that neither network is likely to hire an outside star to fill the empty roles.

Will NBC's investigation into Lauer's conduct indict any current or former NBC executives? The network is going to interview at least 40 employees as part of the investigation into the circumstances that allowed Lauer's bad behavior to go undetected and unpunished. NBC has said that "current management" never received a complaint about Lauer, and his former producer, Jeff Zucker, said at an industry conference that he never heard "a whisper" about Lauer's "deviant, predatory behavior." One persistent question is whether NBC's investigation will finger upper management. And, if it does, will there be consequences? Many in the industry are skeptical of the "no one knew" argument being made by extremely plugged-in current and former executives.

Will Megyn Kelly keep up her momentum? A few weeks into Megyn Kelly Today, the narrative was that NBC probably made a mistake in giving Kelly a massive contract and an hour of the Today franchise to try to prove out her vision of a new morning show. Now, some three months into her show, that narrative has changed. Ratings are up, and Kelly has been covering the heck out of the industry-dominating story of sexual harassment by powerful people. She's re-ignited her beef with Donald Trump by bringing on four women who have accused him of sexual misconduct. "I feel like I’m in a good place right now and so is the show,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s starting to gel.” Will it continue?

M&A Madness

Who will emerge victorious in the court case stemming from the federal government's lawsuit to stop AT&T's purchase of Time Warner? The trial begins March 19, and AT&T is publicly staying confident that it will win and won't have to sell off a prized asset like CNN to get the deal through. The result of the case could also have ramifications for Disney's purchase of much of 21st Century Fox, which Rupert Murdoch has said he expects to pass governmental muster.

Will Sinclair Broadcasting's purchase of Tribune Media go through? The money is on "yes," right now — with some possible pre-conditions necessary. But things have been awfully quiet recently, as the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission review the agreement. Is that a good sign for the deal or a bad one? 

Cable Talent On The Sidelines

Will Greta Van Susteren come back to television? Van Susteren, who has anchored a show on all three of the major cable networks, was unceremoniously dismissed by MSNBC brass in late June, after less than six months in the 6 p.m. hour. Almost immediately, she made clear on her favorite social media platform — Twitter — that she was interested in getting another television show. "Since I got fired, of course I will entertain any job offers that come my way," she told me on July 6. In October, she told me she had received three television offers, but demurred on a return to the platform. "I don’t know if I want to go back to TV," she said. "It would have to be the perfect job and I am not sure that exists anymore."

What about Bill O'Reilly? The former cable news kingpin has said in the past that he's received offers to return to television. In September, he told us that he hadn't decided and was "waiting to see very specific details of the projects that people have pitched to us." What's happened since then? Not much. O'Reilly continues to host a daily digital news show that's sometimes filmed at Newsmax's New York office. In early November, Politico floated the possibility of O'Reilly joining Newsmax, a story that conveniently dropped right after Sinclair's CEO said he has "no interest" in hiring O'Reilly. When I asked recently about the Newsmax possibility, CEO Chris Ruddy said he didn't know and told me to ask O'Reilly's people — so it sounds like it's not going to happen. A source with knowledge of the situation said that O'Reilly has been presented with a number of opportunities but is not yet ready to commit. O'Reilly also has his hands full right now with a defamation lawsuit from three women who have settled sexual misconduct allegations against him. 

Trump vs. The Press

Will Fox News hosts get tougher on Donald Trump? The line between Fox News' news anchors — think Bret Baier and Shepard Smith — and the network's opinion hosts — led by Sean Hannity — has never been clearer. The industry takes for granted that opinion hosts like Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham will go easy on the president and give his administration a pass. But that's not always the case. An early November Carlson interview of Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin struck me as surprisingly tough, and Ingraham didn't go easy on Vice President Mike Pence in an exclusive interview aired on Dec. 20. "Why is the public not with this bill?" she asked Pence of the tax reform bill that's polled tepidly. She also pressed Pence on Trump's low approval ratings. Neil Cavuto has recently made waves by saying — on air and in interviews — that he's not interested in interviewing the president. So will Fox's opinion hosts get tougher on Trump and his cabinet? And will the White House ever grant Fox's news people the Trump interview they desperately want? Baier told me in early September that his staff was scheduling an interview, but that hasn't happened. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders hasn't gotten back to me on that question.

Will Trump give another interview to a national television outlet that's not part of the Fox News family? As president, Trump has never been interviewed by CNN or MSNBC. His last big, non-Fox television interview was with NBC's Lester Holt in May. What would have to happen for Trump to decide to sit for a more combative interview?

Other Questions

When is PBS going to pick a new co-anchor on flagship news program PBS NewsHour? It's been more than a year since Judy Woodruff's partner, Gwen Ifill, passed away, and her seat is still empty. The show has tried out a series of co-anchors, including two NPR employees, Audie Cornish and Steve Inskeep. A fan favorite is NewsHour weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan, but it doesn't look like he will get the weekday job. A source close to the show told me that the seat was offered to an NPR personality or two who turned it down. Recently, Woodruff has been solo-anchoring, and it seems possible the show will make that arrangement permanent. The show is not commenting, and would like me to be patient.

How will Conde Nast adjust to a magazine industry landscape now dominated by Meredith Corp. and Hearst? Everyone I've talked to in magazine media has said that Meredith's acquisition of Time Inc. and Hearst's purchase of Rodale leaves Conde in a distant third place. "Conde is now a very small competitor," one longtime magazine exec said. It's a weird place for such a storied company to be, and if recent reports are to be believed, more cost-cutting is in store for the publisher of tony magazines like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, which recently replaced the legendary editor Graydon Carter with a respected but lesser-known new editor, Radhika Jones. Industry-watchers also have three big questions for Time Inc.'s future owner, Meredith: How many Time Inc. employees will get the boot? Which, if any, Time Inc. magazines will be shuttered as part of the sale? And, finally, will backers Charles and David Koch be the hidden hand that moves news titles like Time and Fortune?