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Roger Ailes, creator of Fox News Channel, is gone. He turned FNC into his own embodiment — clannishly conservative, pugnaciously populist, unapologetically unreconstructed. In the absence of Ailes’ personal guiding hand, the channel will be folded more neatly into the corporate structure of its parent 21st Century Fox, and the family leadership of the Murdochs, father and sons.
With Ailes deposed, some to believe the Murdoch family will guide FNC back towards the ideological mainstream. Unlikely. Why kill the right-wing goose that lays the $1 billion-a-year golden egg?
The better question is, with Ailes gone, will FNC’s stable primetime lineup of anchors remain intact? In particular, what will become of Megyn Kelly, whose contract is up for renewal next year?
Kelly’s feud with Donald Trump catapulted both to the center of campaign 2016, and her ambitions stretch far beyond her nightly cable hour. Kelly’s avowed role models of Charlie Rose and Diane Sawyer suggest two goals: the megamillion-dollar payday that in TV news now is only granted to those in the a.m. broadcast anchor chairs; and prestigious one-on-one interviews in primetime. The first traditionally has favored smart, beautiful, personable blondes; the second, tenacious questioning acumen. Kelly, 45, qualifies on both fronts. (The traditional alternate route for a female television journalist with true star power to attract fame and fortune used to be in afternoon syndication. But the opportunity to follow in Oprah Winfrey’s footsteps is no longer feasible in the contemporary TV business.)
There usually is a revolving door that allows agents to shop talent from network to network. This system relies on a consensus that all networks are essentially in the same business, producing the same type of TV. Thus, anchors who establish a following at Network A can ply their trade at Network B. This is the route Sawyer took from CBS to her big paydays and profile at ABC, and Barbara Walters from NBC to ABC.
Kelly presents the litmus test as to whether Fox News is part of this system. FNC has several stars who have come from mainstream networks: Greta Van Susteren from CNN, Brit Hume and Chris Wallace from ABC, Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto from CNBC, even Gretchen Carlson from CBS. But few stars have managed the reverse transition. Even Major Garrett, the most noteworthy exception, had to spend time in print purgatory at National Journal before being sufficiently rehabbed to join CBS.
FNC has spent so much time differentiating itself from all other mainstream networks and boasting that it has a radically different journalistic agenda and ideology (“fair and balanced”) that it is not clear Kelly’s star power (she reportedly already makes $10 million a year) would translate seamlessly. Can she fit in at a network she has disavowed with her implicit endorsement of Ailes‘ proposition that it is unfair and imbalanced in comparison to Fox?
It is likely Kelly had thought it through before she made her allegations of sexual harassment against Ailes. She must have known her claim to internal investigators would eventually be made public, so she was delivering the coup de grace that would topple Ailes and transform the management structure at FNC. Her decision makes sense if she already had locked in an opportunity to leave and saw no downside to burning bridges. Equally, it makes sense as an internal power grab; with Ailes supplanted, she increases her chances of leapfrogging his acolytes Sean Hannity and, in particular, archrival Bill O’Reilly, to become the network’s true star.
As much as Kelly might aspire to be the next Rose or Sawyer, there is the sobering counterexample of Katie Couric, who demonstrates that a top star in one format can have little leverage in another. Does Kelly really want to end up as a Yahoo castoff?
So, with Ailes gone, is Kelly likely to follow him out the door? Unlikely. I bet she stays at Fox News. As its queen bee.
Tyndall is an independent news analyst.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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