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The hiring of Megyn Kelly by NBC News two years ago was a $69 million gamble by the news division’s chairman Andrew Lack on four separate propositions.
1. That the star power of a celebrity journalist would deliver a jolt of popularity that would increase audience ratings;
2. That Today, NBC’s four-hour flagship morning program, would be improved by the injection of a single personality at its halfway point;
3. That a hard-news weekly magazine is a viable format for broadcast television primetime programming; and
4. That the skills in television journalism that thrive in the militantly ideological niche-targeted setting of Fox News Channel are transferable to the partisan-averse mass-market mentality of the mainstream media.
Lack, it turns out, lived up to his last name. His four-part gamble resulted in a lack of success in all four areas. The specific trigger for the divorce between Kelly and NBC News last week was her ignorance of the racist history of the tradition of minstrelsy. For sure, that trigger is a symptom of one component of Kelly’s difficulties at the network, but even without the particular “blackface” faux pas, Lack’s expensive investment had already turned into wasted money.
The first miscalculation — namely that hiring a celebrity journalist could be a remedy for sagging audience ratings for news programming — should have been easy to foresee. A dozen years ago, CBS News threw its checkbook at Katie Couric. At the time, Couric was by far more popular than Kelly was when she was hired from Fox, yet Couric made no impact whatsoever on the evening newscast ratings race. If Katie could not do it, why on earth would Megyn be able to? Celebrity journalists come and go (look at the minimal change in audience numbers surrounding the recent departures of ABC’s Diane Sawyer or NBC’s Matt Lauer or CBS’ Charlie Rose), but the size of news audiences shifts with the speed of molasses not with a jolt of star power.
The second miscalculation reflects two shifts in morning news programming since the days of Today’s ratings dominance when Couric was behind the desk. Back then, there was a two-hour time slot to be filled, a burden that was not too heavy for a pair of high-profile anchors to carry: Couric, first with Bryant Gumbel, then Lauer; Lauer, first with Couric, then Meredith Vieira. But NBC executives realized that the prestige of the Today brand was being underexploited with just a two-hour time frame. The show’s gradually changing logic — from hard news to household tips, from politics to pop culture — could be extended over a four-hour arc, culminating with Kathie Lee & Hoda, as ladies who lunched. This longer arc required an interchangeable team identity rather than the reliance on a pair of stars. Sure enough, the “team” approach also became a fixture of Today’s archrival Good Morning America. So what did Kelly do when she arrived for her eponymous solo hour? She broke up that team spirit halfway through its arc.
The third miscalculation is almost as old as NBC News itself. The history of the Peacock network’s attempts to create a weekly hard news magazine that could rival 60 Minutes is endlessly long and littered with failures. Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly, the show that introduced Kelly to NBC viewers in summer 2017, was doomed from the start. The perennial success of 60 Minutes turns out to be the exception that proves the rule. Its previous rivals — Dateline NBC and 20/20 — have long since abandoned the magazine format for documentary-style true-crime re-enactment storytelling. These narratives are a cost-efficient use of a news division’s talent and resources. They are a viable programming genre. However, they do not require a figurehead anchor who prides herself on her hard-edged questioning style and hard-to-obtain sit-downs with controversial interview guests. There was no way that Kelly could use this format to fulfill her ambition to be her generation’s Diane Sawyer.
The fourth factor was the least obvious to predict for certain. The history of television journalism at the national level had always been that the various news divisions and cable channels were effectively in the same business. Thus major on-air talent could switch from one network to another without having to learn an entirely new approach. Many of the original famous names at Fox News -– Brit Hume, Chris Wallace, Greta Van Susteren — learned their craft at the broadcast networks or CNN. The hiring of Kelly at NBC was the first time the reverse move had been tested on an anchor rather than a generic correspondent.
In these polarized political times, it turns out that the two news ecosystems — like breeds of finches on the Galapagos Islands — have drifted so far apart that the worldview required to thrive at Fox News is no longer transferable to the MSM. It is appropriate that the impossibility of this cross-fertilization should be dramatized by Kelly’s confession of her own ignorance about the history of blackface. Simply put, while at Fox News she had never been in the business of delivering journalism for a multiracial audience.
Stephen Colbert’s famous routine when he was still at Comedy Central back in 2010 — three years before Kelly landed her slot in the Fox News primetime lineup -– hit the nail on the head. His routine was prompted by the statistic that Fox News averaged a ridiculous nationwide total of 29,000 African-American viewers, just 1.4 percent of its entire viewership. Colbert produced a satirical pie chart: 45 percent are trapped in the waiting room at Jiffy Lube; 25 percent said Glenn Beck’s name three times in the mirror and his show appeared; 23 percent is Juan Williams; and “7 percent are white people who just enjoy watching Fox News in blackface.”
Andrew Tyndall is an independent news analyst and the publisher of The Tyndall Report.
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