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It’s easy to forget amid the uproar over her on-air comments endorsing blackface, but back in January 2017, landing Megyn Kelly was considered a coup for NBC News. Her three-year deal — worth a reported $23 million annually — would weaken Fox News, where Kelly became one of the biggest stars in cable in part by challenging Republican newsmakers (including then-candidate Donald Trump on his history of misogyny). And it would allow NBC to launch a primetime newsmagazine to challenge 60 Minutes as well as upgrade an hour of the network’s cash-cow Today franchise.
Now, as Kelly’s 9 a.m. program ends in scandal and lower ratings than when she arrived, and as the onetime star broadcaster finalizes terms of her exit amid open criticism from NBC News chairman Andrew Lack and her on-air colleagues, Kelly’s personal brand has taken an enormous hit. But is she done as an A-list anchor?
“I don’t think a mainstream network is going to go anywhere near her right now,” says crisis PR expert Eden Gillott Bowe. “Because then it looks like they are endorsing her [statements].”
But that’s “right now.” Most industry observers and insiders polled by The Hollywood Reporter believe that Kelly, 47, will not land somewhere else immediately. That could be one reason why NBC lawyers did not press for a lengthy noncompete clause in her exit negotiations, according to sources.
But many believe Kelly can make a comeback if she plays her cards right. “She needs to retreat a little,” suggests one well-connected crisis PR executive. “If I were her, I’d write an op-ed. Start doing things on social [media] to build up an independent following. And then just wait.”
There has been speculation that Kelly could return to Fox News; but the network threw cold water on that narrative with a statement professing extreme satisfaction with its current primetime lineup, which includes Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Still, Fox News, CNN or another network eventually could come around, especially as the 2020 election cycle kicks into high gear, though few expect her to command anything close to the eye-popping salary she secured at NBC News or the reported four-year, $100 million contract Rupert Murdoch was willing to pay to keep her at Fox.
“Eric Bolling was [ousted] from Fox News for sexting. You still see him being booked on CNN, commenting on the issues of the day,” notes Roland Martin, who appeared on what would be the last episode of Megyn Kelly Today to discuss Kelly’s remarks about blackface being “OK” as a Halloween costume when she was a kid. “I do think Megyn Kelly can come back from this, she can redeem herself. People make mistakes. The question is, do you learn from those mistakes?”
Kelly had lost a slew of bookings in the wake of the remarks, including the cast of House of Cards, director Ron Howard and actor Gary Sinise, whom Kelly has interviewed in connection with his work on behalf of wounded veterans. And she already had alienated a wide swath of Hollywood thanks to her habit of mining interviews for hot-button issues. (Jane Fonda and plastic surgery, for instance.)
But Kelly’s blackface remarks (for which she apologized twice, once in an email to her staff and again on her program the next morning), while underscoring how ill-suited she was for the softer focus of morning TV, are only one factor in her prospects. And there is evidence that the viewing public may be primed to welcome her back to TV. Nearly half of Americans (45 percent, according to an exclusive THR/Morning Consult poll) believe the cancellation of Megyn Kelly Today was too harsh, while only 26 percent say it was appropriate. There is a stark racial divide, as might be expected; 40 percent of African-Americans have a less favorable view of Kelly after her blackface comments, while 42 percent of white respondents said it made no difference.
The bigger issue for Kelly is that well before her flameout, both of her NBC shows were perceived as failures. Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly bowed in June 2017 with a timely sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin that was watched by a respectable 6 million viewers. But then Kelly interviewed Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. And while she pressed him on his abhorrent claims about the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary school, she never diligently explored the toxic gun control debate at the heart of Jones’ “false flag” conspiracies. Jones preemptively leaked a pre-interview with Kelly during which she assured him she would not portray him as “some kind of bogeyman.” And a picture of the duo in sunglasses smiling suggested an uncomfortable level of coziness. The primetime show was quietly pulled after eight episodes.
Then her Today hour — which was far more expensive than Today’s Take, the show it replaced — shed nearly 400,000 viewers and dropped 26 percent among viewers in the critical 25-to-54 demo, according to Nielsen. The fact that black anchor Tamron Hall, who co-hosted Today’s Take with Al Roker, had left NBC rather than accept a diminished role to make room for Kelly became another thread in Kelly’s demise. In reality, daytime audiences skew female and African-American. And many within NBC News argued from the beginning that the steely Kelly was a poor fit at 9 a.m. “There wasn’t a piece of research that suggested that Megyn Kelly had a warm bone in her body and could go from primetime to mornings,” says one NBC News insider.
Indeed, Kelly’s persona at Fox News was as a tell-it-like-it-is maverick with a take-no-prisoners interview style. And it served her well, earning her accolades from liberals even if it likely alienated a portion of the older, white male audience for Fox.
But at NBC News, the attempt to refashion her as a daytime host led to awkward on-air moments and a rancorous rift between the anchor and her employer. Kelly’s reporting on misconduct allegations at NBC, particularly those against ousted Today host Matt Lauer, did not go unnoticed by Lack, 71, while many of her colleagues were outraged when she extended an invitation to Lauer and his accusers for a joint interview on her show. To that end, one sticking point in her exit negotiations is that Kelly balked at signing an NDA. When her lawyer, Bryan Freedman, released a statement Oct. 30 denying a report that Kelly demanded a bigger payout than the remainder of her $69 million contract, he also called out Lack: “This is clearly planted by NBC News to continue its mission to harm Megyn and gain some sort of leverage. It won’t work. Andy Lack needs to stop.”
If, or wherever, she lands, Kelly likely will focus on rebuilding her brand as a strong political interviewer and hard-news anchor, something she was said to be leaning toward at NBC even before the blackface scandal broke. “Megyn is good at what she does, but she has to understand who she actually is,” says the PR exec. “She has a conservative female perspective, and that’s not a bad place to be. The Sheryl Sandbergs of the world loved her because she was speaking up against Trump. And a lot of people thought that made her part of the club. But she was never part of the club.”
This story appears in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek