A somewhat hopeful view of Megan Kelly’s bumpy beginning at NBC …
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On Sunday evening, the fourth episode of Megyn Kelly’s new weekly news program, Sunday Night, featured a profile of J.D. Vance, the best-selling author of Hillbilly Elegy, who has become something of a political sensation during the past year on account of his perspicacious diagnosis of rural America’s maladies. In the 13-minute segment, Vance displayed the unique affability and perspective that have facilitated his rise. He opened up to Kelly about his fraught relationship with his sister, his childhood memory of watching his heroin-addled mother get arrested, and his insecurities about attending Yale Law School as a young man from an opioid-ravaged section of Ohio. At one point, as Kelly asked him about an early memory, he even choked up.
The segment, which featured Kelly on the ground reporting in numerous locations, interviewing Vance’s sister and his former law professor (Amy Chua, the now famous author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother), also evidenced a new element of the anchor’s revitalized persona at NBC—Kelly’s attempt, as she once put it, to “merge a little Charlie Rose, a little Oprah, and a little me all together.” Kelly gracefully mixed tough questions with more sensitive ones; she oscillated between asking Vance about his rumored political future to his feelings about becoming a dad. The segment ended with her offering congratulations upon the birth of Ewan Blaine Vance.
As Newsweek suggested on Monday morning, the feel-good interview must have come as a relief not only to Kelly but likely her overlords at NBC. The initial episodes of her show, after all, have been overwhelmed by controversy. Her interview with Vladimir Putin was perceived by some as de-fanged and occasionally boring. And a preview of her interview with alt-right personality Alex Jones ignited a week long media saga that enveloped the network—exacerbating tensions surrounding a show that has appeared embattled from its very conception.
The week between the debut of the Jones promo and the actual interview became, on some level, a microcosm of the problem that many media observers predicted when Kelly joined NBC in January for a reported $17.5 million per year. During her time at Fox News, Kelly acquired the nickname “Me-Again” on account of a perceived ability to put herself in the center of affairs. And as the Jones P.R. crisis festered, her new colleagues at NBC appeared to be sucked into her latest headline. Sunday Night hustled to produce the segment through the weekend. Visitors to the studio would see chairs labeled “leave in place” for Kelly’s staff. (Kelly’s interview with the father of a student who died in the 2012 Newtown school shooting—an event that Jones has called a hoax—was conducted mid-week, after the promo, but well ahead of the last-minute edits). Kelly’s staff had to work on “four hours of sleep a night,” a person familiar with the situation told me. As scrutiny mounted, Kelly‘s staff had been living a “nightmare,” this person said. (Kelly declined to comment for this story.)
In order to add the gravitas of NBC News behind the interview, Tom Brokaw appeared on Sunday Night to read an essay on hate and the Internet. Earlier in the week, Brokaw had referred to Jones on MSNBC’s Morning Joe as an “unalloyed racist, a man who is out there pulling the pin on the grenade every day, and he has 6 million viewers who are paying attention to him.” After that appearance, legendary NBC News chairman Andy Lack talked to Brokaw about appearing on Kelly’s show. One person familiar with the matter explained that the Jones interview had been partly Lack’s idea in the first place. Lack had read a profile of him in The New York Times and submitted his name for consideration to Kelly and other executives. (Lack declined to comment for this story.)
Jones’s leaked recordings of Kelly’s interview pitch to him, wherein she vowed to portray him more as a father than a “bogeyman”, were generally discarded by media observers, who noted the regularity of such buttery conversations before a taped sit-down. But one industry insider noted that the private conversation carried more weight given Kelly’s history at Fox News. As this person put it to me, “the way she was on the phone, carrying on, the way she would at Fox, cutting a deal with the devil . . . points to Fox being a different type of news network.” Colleagues at NBC, this person suggested, didn’t necessarily want to be associated with it. (A Fox News spokeswoman said, “it’s vintage NBC to misdirect blame for its own behavior, and its own results.”)
In the end, Kelly and Lack rallied strongly to produce a program that seemed far less noxious than the preview—or Kelly’s friendly snapshot with Jones—suggested. In addition to showing Jones spewing crackpot conspiracy theories on all manner of topics, her pointed questions forced him to sputter and backtrack as he tried to defend his indefensible claims. It also revealed the embarrassing reality that a good portion of Infowars’s revenue comes from selling consumer products—such as fluoride-free toothpaste and “Super Male Vitality” tinctures—that Jones himself promotes on the show.
The Vance segment, a week later, may have been the sort of worthy booking that could wipe away the stench of the scandal for good. But he could not stanch the downward decline of Kelly’s ratings. Kelly, who averaged about 500,000 nightly viewers at Fox News in the prized 25-54 demographic, has seen Sunday Night’s viewership decline steadily since its debut. (Kelly’s average total viewership at Fox News, which included older viewers outside the demo, were far higher.) While her Putin interview lost out to a 60 Minutes rerun, it still clocked a total 6.2 million viewers. The episode featuring the Jones interview was down to 3.6 million. The Vance episode was down to 3.4 million.
Kelly’s executive producer, David Corvo, had set the ratings bar low before Sunday Night even aired, but the numbers remain discouraging. “3.5 million is a great night for cable news,” said one former colleague. Indeed, this person noted, Kelly excelled in the cable atmosphere, where a show could blow up at the last minute, and a little grit was involved. “She thrived on that,” this person said. But network TV is much more plodding and programmed. And Kelly’s only significant exposure to long-form pieces was her much derided Fox special in which she interviewed Donald Trump.
Kelly’s move to NBC, which was announced in early January, was perceived as part of the network’s move to the center in the early days of the Trump era. Around the same time, radio personality Hugh Hewitt was brought on, according to one NBC insider, to get a broader set of viewpoints represented in the political discussions that occur around the clock on MSNBC. “Instead of having the Jeffrey Lord WWF show like you do on CNN,” this person said, NBC wanted a more reasoned conservative voice. Meanwhile, Fox alumni Greta van Susteren was seen as someone who could book big Washington guests from the Republican side of the aisle. Kelly, however, was purely a talent play. “There is no political play to the Megyn hire,” a person familiar with the situation said. “Andy and [NBC News president] Noah [Oppenheim] and others believed she has great potential in a number of formats.”
In the early days, however, Kelly may prove that few stars have that kind of crossover potential in our current media environment—one in which content must be increasingly platform- and format-specific. (Kelly’s rocky move to a Sunday night magazine-show may also be as much a commentary on the format, which skews toward an older, hidebound audience, as it is one on Kelly’s abilities.) It’s a reality that Kelly’s old colleague Bill O’Reilly appears to be learning the hard way as he tries to leverage his brand of conservatism into a new digital media venture. (Admittedly, it’s a lesson that O’Reilly himself could have learned from Glenn Beck years earlier.)
Kelly may defy the convention, but the stakes will be high. Not only is she among NBC’s most highly compensated anchors, but Kelly will also soon be co-hosting the nine A.M. hour of Today, a role she assumed by displacing Tamron Hall, a prominent African American former co-host of the nine A.M. hour. But as Kelly finds her feet, there may be a silver lining. Upon Kelly’s arrival, one TV industry insider told me that her hire “was all about replacing Matt Lauer in a couple of years. They want to protect the Today show and they will build the Today show around her.” One month into her tenure at NBC, though, those rumors have quieted.
From Vanity Fair (June 27, 2017)