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The addition of Fox News anchors Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren to NBC News and MSNBC, respectively, may portend major shifts across the TV news landscape. For Fox, the loss of its biggest news star has resulted in a doubling down on conservative-leaning opinion hosts in primetime. And at Andrew Lack’s NBCUniversal news division, there could be a rightward tack in certain areas in response to the election of Donald Trump.
21st Century Fox leaders James and Lachlan Murdoch are said to have considered re-signing Kelly, 46, a key part of their strategy to focus Fox News more closely on news. But when Kelly passed up a reported four-year, $100 million Fox deal to join NBC on Jan. 3, the Murdochs instead elevated conservative host Tucker Carlson to her 9 p.m. time slot between Bill O’Reilly and Trump supporter Sean Hannity, both of whom clashed publicly with Kelly during the presidential campaign.
“If Sean Hannity won the power struggle, it was probably because Kelly didn’t really want the fight,” notes news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “If you’re going to have a Fox News primetime that’s made in Hannity’s image, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having Carlson there.”
Sources close to Kelly note the battles with her Fox primetime colleagues had begun to grate on her. And they remain skeptical that the Murdochs — especially Rupert Murdoch, who has taken a lead role at Fox News since the ouster of Roger Ailes amid sexual harassment claims — would have pivoted primetime to news given that Fox in its current incarnation delivered $1 billion in profits to the parent company in 2016.
The new Fox News lineup of an all-male team between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. (though Martha MacCallum on Jan. 16 will begin hosting The First 100 Days) features three varieties of the network’s traditional conservative commentary. And now O’Reilly, the top-rated host, is dealing with the revelation Jan. 10 that Fox quietly settled a sexual harassment claim in the summer brought by Juliet Huddy, a former employee, against him. (“Huddy’s letter of intent to sue contained substantial falsehoods which were vehemently denied by Bill O’Reilly,” says Fox in a statement.)
One longtime industry executive notes the Kelly and Van Susteren moves are in line with an old-school modus operandi of bringing in established talent — and, in the case of Kelly, a huge star. “The calculation,” says an NBC News insider, “was we’re better off having her than not having her.” Both women hail from the news operation of Fox News, as opposed to its opinion hosts. Kelly, of course, stood up to Trump’s bullying and was known before that to break with conservative ideology. Since assuming leadership of MSNBC nearly three years ago, Lack has turned the network back toward straight news coverage during the day, keeping its opinionated hosts mostly confined to primetime. In announcing Van Susteren’s deal Jan. 5, MSNBC president Phil Griffin noted her “proven record of tough journalism.” Van Susteren, 62, began hosting a 7 p.m. show Jan. 9, and a promo for her Washington-based program features a personal testimonial from Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s biggest progressive star.
Meanwhile, a week after Kelly’s deal was announced, top execs at NBC News remained in the dark about Lack’s plans for her. Kelly’s exit from Fox News still is being worked out, and sources say her Fox deal, set to expire in July, has a six-month noncompete clause — standard in TV news contracts. That means the Murdochs conceivably could keep her off NBC until year’s end, though no one expects that to happen.
Sources inside and outside NBC are pointing to a likely scenario of giving Kelly the troubled 9 a.m. hour of Today in lieu of launching a daytime show and mounting what would be an uphill sales pitch to stations. The third hour of Today has been the weakest link in the NBC News franchise that includes the flagship 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. block anchored by Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie and the frothy 10 a.m. hour hosted by Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford. It was thrown into further turmoil last year when Billy Bush was ousted after the Access Hollywood Trump tape leaked. So NBC News executives may have little to lose by giving Kelly the hour. Sources at NBC News caution that nothing has been decided, but insiders expect her to make her NBC debut in a regular capacity this summer, though she could be on the air earlier as part of the network’s breaking news and event coverage. With Kelly, NBC News execs have the opportunity to rebrand the 9 a.m. hour of Today to fit her strengths as a reporter and interviewer and also achieve some flow between the more news-focused flagship block. “It’s another high-end talent in your most profitable block,” says one industry observer. “If you keep her in her lane, can she do her kind of show at 9 a.m. versus 9 p.m.? I’d buy that.”
Doing so also would break with the more recent morning show trend of focusing on the group dynamic rather than promoting one star. But keeping Kelly in the news fold eliminates some of the risk. “She will need the promotional juice that Today confers in order to succeed,” says another source. “They will want her showing up in the 8 a.m. hour of Today to tease her show.”
The addition of Kelly — and, to a lesser extent, Van Susteren — also brings challenges and could destabilize the delicate anchor ego ecosystem. “Why didn’t MSNBC try out one of its road warriors in the 7 p.m. slot?” asks Tyndall, referring to the female campaign troika of Hallie Jackson, Katy Tur and Kasie Hunt. (Sources say Jackson is expected to be named White House correspondent, while Tur likely will remain in New York.) NBC News locked Lauer and Guthrie into new long-term deals recently; and Guthrie’s five-year pact was finalized in December before she went on maternity leave.
Though NBC pointedly did not include MSNBC in its plans for Kelly, some believe she may end up there, especially by the next election cycle. An industry source says if current plans for Kelly don’t work out, MSNBC could be a “safety valve.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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