Four weeks before the Sept. 25 debut of Megyn Kelly Today—the 9 a.m. replacement for the venerable morning show’s third hour, Today’s Take—some NBC insiders are expressing doubts, and even worries, about the network news division’s plan to scrap a reliable long-running program in order to morph the former Fox News anchor and Donald Trump nemesis into an accessible, female-friendly personality for an ethnically diverse daytime viewership.
Officially, of course, NBC News is excited and upbeat about the new show, which will feature a live audience in a specially built studio at 30 Rock.
A self-described “combination of Mike Wallace, Oprah Winfrey, and Larry the Cable Guy” (as she famously confided to pernicious conspiracy monger Alex Jones in his leaked audiotape of her telephone pitch to secure an interview for her Sunday magazine show), the 46-year-old Kelly is a gifted broadcaster.
She thrived as a prime-time star on the right-leaning cable channel with a male-skewing viewership—“a TV network for people 55 to dead,” as the late Fox News founder Roger Ailes once joked.
“A lot of people were watching the magazine show to try to get a sense of her appeal to the daytime demographic and a sense of how she would be outside of the Fox environment,” said a veteran daytime television impresario, who noted that the nationwide audience in that time period is not only heavily female but from 25 to 30 percent African American and Latino. “Fox News skews very male… I always tend to think of her as more of a guy’s girl than a girl’s girl… It’s extremely challenging, and I’m not sure Megyn’s personality really connects with women.”
In recent months, Kelly has been a regular presence on the 7-9 a.m. Today show (contributing “Summer of Yes” segments in which she trekked into the wilderness with her husband and two young children and strummed the guitar by the campfire, among other warm and fuzzy pursuits).
Off camera, she has cozied up to coworkers at 30 Rock and elsewhere, and has dutifully traveled to far-flung NBC affiliate stations to schmooze general managers and local talent.
Earlier this month, she capitalized on her visit to an NBC station in North Carolina by throwing out the first pitch at the Durham Bulls game.
Yet, according to network insiders, her new role is prompting “questions internally about who her audience is exactly” as well as a sense of “total panic” concerning the intense media scrutiny that will unavoidably attend the launch of Megyn Kelly Today, to say nothing of the need to publicly vindicate NBC News Chairman Andy Lack’s $17 million gamble (reportedly her eye-popping annual compensation) when he wooed her away from Fox.
It was not a good omen for Kelly’s daytime prospects when Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly posted disappointing numbers, was reportedly pulled from its limited summer run July 30 two episodes short of the expected 10, and attracted unwelcome controversy with the Alex Jones segment, notably protests from the relatives of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims (including 20 young children killed in a mass shooting that Jones had called a hoax).
“The Sunday show laid such an egg that any claims that she had automatic star power, to get people in the door to see what she was doing, have been disavowed,” television news analyst Andrew Tyndall told The Daily Beast. “The stardom of the celebrity anchor was a phenomenon of the 1980s back when [flamboyant ABC News president] Roone Arledge was around. In this day and age, the shows make the anchors, not the other way around.”
But within NBC, the fact that Kelly’s Sunday show—which is scheduled to resume next spring after football and Olympics coverage—fell short of expectations doesn’t necessarily reflect on her new venture.
“The Sunday show struggled and tried to be very splashy and even controversial, but the Today show is a different format with a very strong underlying brand,” said an NBC insider who, as with others who were interviewed, claims to like Kelly and to be rooting for her success. “She should be able to excel there even if the Sunday show was perceived as compromised. They’re totally different animals.”
While the Sunday show’s June 4 launch, featuring her newsmaking interview with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, received mixed reviews but garnered praise from respected Washington Post foreign policy columnist David Ignatius, some internal NBC critics argue that Kelly would have been better served by concentrating on less hard-edged, more humanizing segments to demonstrate that she’s relatable to a morning television audience.
A well-connected NBC insider dismissed that argument: “If you were trying to use a Sunday night public affairs journalism show to soften an anchor’s image for a morning show, you wouldn’t accomplish that—nor would you do a good public affairs show. You would just accomplish nothing.”
The nature of Megyn Kelly Today’s mix of newsworthy interviews versus the traditional daytime fare of personal confession, cooking, fashion, and entertainment segments remains unclear.
But an NBC News source told The Daily Beast that the show’s launch next month will result in “the opportunity to reformat most of the Today hours with the goal of adding more Today programing for the viewers. We were successful in doing that and the viewer will soon enjoy almost 8 minutes of more Today content starting in September.”
When she takes over Today’s third hour next month—a move, when it was announced in February, that resulted in the abrupt and indignant departure from NBC of popular anchor Tamron Hall, who now is planning to host her own daytime show produced by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein—Kelly will be fronting a franchise that has aired in various incarnations since May 2000.
On the bright side, Kelly will be somewhat protected by the Today show’s strong lead-in; the 7-9 a.m. program has consistently beat all comers in the all-important 25-54 news demographic, on which advertising is sold, for the past two years. The current third hour—featuring Al Roker, Dylan Dreyer, and Sheinelle Jones—has been posting respectable ratings, although it trails ABC’s 9 a.m. offering, Live with Kelly & Ryan, in both the news demo and total viewers.
“She has the safety net of being in the Today show cocoon,” said the daytime impresario. “She’ll be in the flow of audience going through that time period at 9 a.m., and there’s going to be some buzz around it, and some sampling by viewers.”
But, this daytime veteran cautioned, “she’s going to have to adapt to the live audience, she will have to be more entertaining, and that will be a learning curve for her. The ultimate question is whether she connects with women in daytime.”