“I am kinda done with politics for now,” Megyn Kelly told her debut audience last Monday. “You know why. We all feel it. It’s everywhere, and it’s gotten so dark, and I just think I’m over it.”
Kelly’s new show, Megyn Kelly Today—the latest hour-long block in the extended Today show universe—recasts the once-pugnacious Fox News anchor as a staid celebrity whisperer, a morning-TV figurehead who couldn’t be any less provocative or offensive if she tried. The soft-talk program is a stark departure from her origins at Fox News, where she anchored The Kelly File, an evening talking-heads cypher that aired between The O’Reilly Factor and Sean Hannity’s later right-wing news hour. NBC offered Kelly more than $15 million per year, meaning she now earns more than Good Morning America’s established stars, Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos. At NBC, Kelly is the second-highest-paid member of the Today crew, outearned only by longtime series patriarch Matt Lauer. Assuming her network daytime rebranding goes according to plan, Megyn Kelly is the future of NBC.
But NBC’s plans for Kelly are disintegrating before our very eyes. For her September 25 debut, Kelly interviewed the main cast of Will & Grace, the recently revived NBC sitcom about two classically compatible roommates: Will Truman, an uptight gay man played by Eric McCormack, and Grace Adler, a hapless straight woman played by Debra Messing. Will & Grace stars openly gay characters, and so Kelly’s interview with the cast signaled a clean break from the reactionary culture that Fox News reveres and perpetuates. The Kelly File was no country for Will & Grace, but Megyn Kelly Today is a new frontier. “I, like so many of you, also watched Will & Grace religiously,” Kelly gushed to her debut audience. But immediately after the interview, a small controversy ensued: Kelly had invited a professed Will & Grace “superfan,” Russell Turner, a gay man, on stage to meet the cast and the series creators. Kelly then asked Turner whether watching Will & Grace is why he “became gay.” It’s hardly the first time she’s offended LGBTQ viewers and their allies. Kelly spent much of her 12 years at Fox News antagonizing gay rights activists, hosting spokesmen for hate groups, and belaboring “Christian values” as a classic conservative trope. Messing later said she regretted going on Kelly’s show in the first place. Two days later, Kelly would interview Jane Fonda and Robert Redford about their new movie, Our Souls at Night, and misstep badly by asking Fonda to talk about why she’s “not proud to admit” that she’s had plastic surgery. “We really want to talk about that now?” Fonda balked.
Kelly’s critics have seized on the disastrous first week of Megyn Kelly Today as proof that the former Fox News anchor is out of her depth on mainstream morning television. Megyn Kelly Today didn’t air Monday morning, as Today instead aired special coverage of the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. It is strange to think that Kelly, herself a former national news anchor, now helms a program that is basically unsuited to cover such breaking news, as she has instead designed her morning couch show as a platform altogether unrelated to the real world and unconcerned with its developments, political or otherwise. But that comfortable stage hasn’t spared Kelly from criticism for her awkward fit and conduct within the format. With Megyn Kelly Today, Kelly has become the hapless director of her own spoof reel. Jezebel went so far as to launch a new blog series, “Megyn Kelly Today, Today,” “a new daily column in which we will share the most memorable things that happened on Megyn Kelly Today every morning until we are no longer able to watch Megyn Kelly Today without feeling like there will be no tomorrow.”
Megyn Kelly Today is the latest leg of a rough journey for the former Fox News anchor, whose awkward fit at NBC raises concerns that her appeal to conservative Fox News viewers translates rather poorly to other networks and formats. Before Today, Kelly hosted a Sunday-night news magazine program for NBC, Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly, clearly modeled after 60 Minutes and designed to compete with the 49-year-old CBS news show. At Fox News, Kelly had moderated a GOP presidential primary debate, and she’d once conducted a contentious interview with former vice president Dick Cheney, but otherwise her experience didn’t suggest any great talent for artful interviews or sturdy reporting. As a straight-news anchor, Kelly failed badly: Sunday Night repeatedly lost network TV ratings comparisons with not only 60 Minutes, but also ABC’s reruns of America’s Funniest Home Videos. NBC quietly ended its “limited summer run” of Sunday in July, teasing a possible return in the spring and otherwise making way for Kelly’s morning Today debut in September.
A month before NBC ended Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly, MSNBC announced the departure of Greta Van Susteren. Kelly’s fellow Fox News expat hosted the little-watched For the Record With Greta for less than six months before leaving MSNBC as unceremoniously as she left Fox News a little over a year ago. At MSNBC, Van Susteren had exported her old Fox News format faithfully; her Fox News show, On the Record, and her MSNBC show, For the Record, were largely synonymous, and Van Susteren even stressed in her debut episode on MSNBC that the latter was a continuation of the former. But Kelly has tried, a couple of times now, to reinvent herself. Kelly wouldn’t be the first Fox News anchor to leave the powerhouse news network only to languish awkwardly at unsuitable anchor’s desks, though she’s at least fared better than Van Susteren in terms of money and attention. For most of its disenchanted anchors, Fox News makes for a miserable diaspora. There is no bigger, better life after Fox News. At best, there’s obscurity. And the worst-case scenario is the string of petty humiliations that Kelly now faces daily.
Bill O’Reilly was perhaps the first and biggest star in the history of cable news. His prime-time politics hour, The O’Reilly Factor, ran for 21 years on Fox News, bringing in more than 3 million nightly viewers on average from 2015 through the show’s dramatic cancellation in April 2017. O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News amid reports that he and his employer, 21st Century Fox, had paid a total of $13 million to five different women—all either staff or guests of The O’Reilly Factor—to settle complaints of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior. In the nearly six months since his departure, O’Reilly has been reduced to a weekly radio gig on his former Fox News coworker Glenn Beck’s conservative media network, TheBlaze. O’Reilly may be the godfather of modern cable news punditry, but as a former Fox News anchor, the best he can do to find an audience for his classic rants is to go crawling back to the nightly time slot of his ideological heir, Sean Hannity, who took O’Reilly’s place as the network’s most-watched anchor. Without Fox News, O’Reilly is nothing.
Even for the network’s biggest names, it is virtually impossible for an anchor to thrive after Fox News. Beck, once a favorite tea party soothsayer who threatened to eclipse O’Reilly in theatrics and influence, came the closest to launching a successful, independent politics brand after he left Fox News in April 2011. In his final year at Fox News, Beck launched his own conservative media network, TheBlaze, which produced blogging, web videos, and cable TV programming to compete with a wide variety of conservative outlets, including Fox News, Breitbart, and The Daily Caller. With TheBlaze, Beck meant to join Breitbart in building a web-based future for right-wing journalism. But, despite Beck’s spectacular popularity as a Fox News host, which positioned him as a key figure in the tea party movement and a forefather of Trumpian politics, TheBlaze has struggled in the past couple of years. In March, Beck fired his network’s only breakout star, the video host Tomi Lahren, after she announced her support for abortion rights and suggested that “pro-life” conservatives are hypocrites. In August, Beck announced a 20 percent staff cut at his company, Mercury Radio Arts, which, The Daily Beast reports, has suffered drastic revenue shortfalls since the company’s peak $24 million profit in 2014.
TheBlaze’s failure coincides with Beck’s late efforts last year to rebrand himself as a reformed, repentant right-winger who now dramatically opposes President Donald Trump. Since summer 2015, Beck has expressed skepticism of Trump’s amorphous politics, breaking with fellow GOP boosters Hannity and Ann Coulter. After Trump’s election, Beck told The New Yorker that he regrets having called Obama a racist for so many years, and that he has come to sympathize, somewhat, with the concerns of Black Lives Matter. As with Megyn Kelly, Beck’s second act has been a moderate improvement upon his first. But where Kelly has ingratiated herself with mainstream media simply by joining it, Beck has kept at the fringes, instead begging his way back into the good graces of The New Yorker and The New York Times as a subject who rebukes his own Fox News years explicitly and repeatedly. “I could excuse it, to some degree—I won’t—but I could excuse some of it by saying that I was trying to, in some ways, accomplish what Jon Stewart can accomplish: draw huge crowds, make points and then encourage you to do your own homework,” Beck told The New York Times two weeks after Trump’s election. Of all the major Fox News refugees of the past decade, only Beck has repudiated his former employer and renounced his own role in Fox News’ right-wing machinery. “I know I wouldn’t believe me if I heard myself apologizing, so I’m telling you now,” Beck continues. “Don’t take my word for it. Watch my actions. I don’t care what you think about me. All I care about is saying, Please, don’t make the mistake I made.” By “mistake,” Beck refers to his encouraging conservatives to view politics as a game of demographic grievances and spite. But Beck’s biggest mistake, if his present desperation is any indication, was his leaving Fox News in the first place.
Kelly fled her old network for especially sympathetic reasons. Fox News is a network plagued by sexual harassment, an indignity so common at the network’s Rockefeller Center headquarters in Manhattan that a lengthy archive of such complaints forced the network’s two biggest names, O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, to leave the network within 10 months of each other. Another popular Fox News anchor, Eric Bolling, who cohosted The Five, also left the network in early September amid sexual harassment allegations first reported by HuffPost in August. Meanwhile, Kelly, Van Susteren, and Gretchen Carlson—the archetypal Fox News blondes, and the network’s biggest female stars—all departed the network within a year of one another; Carlson split with the network in July 2016 and filed a sexual harassment lawsuit (since settled with News Corp for $20 million) against Ailes, Van Susteren left abruptly in September 2016, and Kelly left Fox News amicably in January 2017. Currently, the top-rated anchors at Fox News are all white men: Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Bret Baier, Brit Hume, and the liberal gadfly Shepard Smith, the network’s truest believers who show no signs of leaving anytime soon.
As a TV personality, Kelly was never as big as Hannity or Beck. Her namesake Fox News program, The Kelly File, was never the ideological carnival that Glenn Beck was in the early 2000s, nor was it the sort of must-see TV news digest that made Hannity and O’Reilly into indispensable news readers for the U.S. right wing. This was true even as The Kelly File became the second-most-watched Fox News program, beating Hannity’s ratings throughout 2016, and charting a course for her to become the new, youthful face of a network. Unfortunately for Kelly, Trump took a disliking to Kelly, who had challenged Trump in her role as moderator at an August 2015 debate among the early GOP presidential hopefuls. “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” Kelly told Trump in an exchange that Vanity Fair would cite as the reactionary news anchor’s feminist bona fides in a flattering February 2016 magazine story, titled “Blowhards, Beware: Megyn Kelly Will Slay You Now.” Two days after the debate, Trump would describe Kelly’s challenge as a hysterical outburst: “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” he told CNN anchor Don Lemon by phone. Trump, who is known to belabor his grudges, would go on to rehash his feud with Kelly throughout the later GOP primary phases of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump’s wild insults bolstered Kelly’s public profile, but they also damaged her credibility among the network’s Trump-obsessive viewership. By the time Kelly left Fox News for NBC, liberals naturally regarded her as a right-wing hack who once frothed at the harmless suggestion that Santa Claus, a fictional character, might be conceived as black; meanwhile, many conservative viewers had suddenly come to regard Kelly as yet another one of Trump’s pathetic detractors. Trump turned Kelly’s own audience against her, and the GOP presidential nominee’s sustained invective left her with little room to maneuver as an anchor at a network whose founder and president, Ailes, was one of Trump’s key confidants.
At Fox News, Kelly might have gradually repaired her relationship with Trump, as the rest of the network has, and enjoyed the spoils of his presidency in the way of ratings and access. Hosting Sunday Night at NBC, however, she struggled to justify a feature-length news format that didn’t suit her best, argumentative self. Her sizable Kelly File audience wasn’t as portable as her reputation. Kelly’s decade-plus of experience at Fox News clung to her as a stench, giving her program’s biggest, attention-begging features a whiff of failure before they even aired. For her debut interview, she sat with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2017, four days before the disgruntled former FBI director James Comey would testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, during the height of public concern and political fear-mongering with regard to Russia’s web-based interference in the 2016 presidential election. It is common for supposedly hard-hitting journalists to demur in formal confrontations with decently charismatic heads of state, but Kelly’s interview with Putin was a remarkable whiff; Putin laughed off Kelly’s most pointed questions with an ease that instantly dispelled Kelly’s hard-news pretensions. Two weeks later, Kelly would profile the Infowars host Alex Jones—the Glenn Beck of YouTube—a loud, growling conspiracy-monger who has suggested that the 2012 massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax staged by the federal government. Once NBC announced Kelly’s interview with Jones a week before it would air, critics decried Kelly for hosting Jones on a mainstream, national platform, and advertisers such as JPMorgan Chase pulled ads that were scheduled to air during the episode.
Despite the widespread attention to her missteps, Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly ended its “limited summer run” with a whimper, disgraced but mercifully forgotten by its nonexistent audience as well as Kelly’s critics. With Today, Kelly may not be so lucky. Already, Megyn Kelly Today has inspired more memes than your average Today show chat segment, and so at least she has that much going for her among hate-watchers. Still, Kelly’s avowedly apolitical approach to hosting Megyn Kelly Today has thrown some NBC executives for a loop. After all, the network spent millions to hire an emergent politics anchor with a forceful style, a proven audience, and, for many viewers, an attractive political perspective; why waste those provocative qualities and talents on softball trivia segments with the cast of Will & Grace? (Especially considering how flat and bad Kelly is at interviewing the cast of Will & Grace.) For NBC, Kelly is a potentially expensive flop. For Kelly, NBC is a multimillion-dollar refuge from her own sins and from the larger viciousness of her former employer, which has cursed every major anchor that has dared to abandon the racket. Kelly may be the laughingstock of morning TV news in the worst possible sense, but, as far as former Fox News anchors go, she’s in good company.