In what must be considered an unwelcome twist for Megyn Kelly and the team haggling over her severance package from NBC News, ratings for the Today show’s third hour have measurably improved since she was summarily dropped from the program amid the “blackface” debacle.
This latest development is unlikely to enhance the former Fox News star’s negotiating leverage as her high-powered Hollywood attorney, Bryan Freedman, tries to persuade NBC’s upper management—including NBC News Chairman Andy Lack and his boss, NBC chief executive Stephen Burke—to maximize Kelly’s payout, midway through a three-year contract reportedly worth $69 million.
In other words, she might not be in a strong position to “Settle for More,” per the title of a recurring segment on Kelly’s defunct NBC show, based on various life lessons she presented in her 2016 memoir of the same name.
According to just-released weekly Nielsen averages—figures provided to The Daily Beast by a media outlet that is not connected to NBC or its parent company, Comcast—the week after Kelly’s October 26 departure and the abrupt demise of Megyn Kelly Today, total viewership for Today’s third hour actually increased by 5 percent—from 2,522,000 during Kelly’s final week on the air to 2,649,000 during the week beginning Oct. 29.
Significantly, this post-Kelly ratings spike occurred despite a slight falloff in total viewers (a decrease from 3,832,000 to 3,747,000) experienced week-over-week by Today’s 8 a.m. block, the lead-in to the third hour of the four-hour Today franchise.
Even more revealing, the target demographic groups most desired by daytime television advertisers—women 18-49 and women 25-54—also enjoyed immediate upticks in the aftermath of Kelly’s exit. Women 18-49 increased by 10 percent (from 336,000 to 371,000), while women 25-54 spiked by 6 percent (from 465,000 to 495,000).
“That absolutely comes as no surprise at all,” television news analyst Andrew Tyndall told The Daily Beast. “She was a speed bump placed right in the middle of a four-hour block of programming—dismantling the sense of teamwork on that set and the flow that will get you all the way through from the hard news at 7 a.m. to the light talk through 11 o’clock.”
With the third hour staged in front of a live studio audience in 30 Rock’s expensively reconfigured Studio 6A and branded Megyn Kelly Today—the first time in the program’s 66-year history that an anchor’s name received top billing over the show’s—“there was no coherence there,” Tyndall added. “It’s not a surprise that people are much happier now leaving that channel on and letting the thing flow through.”
A longtime morning show veteran agreed.
“Megyn’s show was always kind of an interruption of the Today show vibe,” said this person, who asked not to be further identified in order to speak frankly. “Every time Megyn came on, it was signaling that the program you’ve just been watching was over. Whereas now, it seems like a continuation and it’s kind of blurred. The vibe and the visuals are very much like the previous two hours.”
A spokesperson for NBC News declined to comment.
The post-Kelly 9 a.m. program—broadcast starting the week after she rashly defended the historically racist practice of Halloween-costume blackface on her Oct. 23 show and tearfully apologized on the air the following day—has been hosted by a rotating crew of Today personalities, including Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb, Al Roker, Jenna Bush Hager, Sheinelle Jones, and Craig Melvin.
It’s an ethnically diverse group that seems calculated to appeal more successfully than Kelly to a daytime viewership that traditionally is composed of around 25 percent Latina and African-American women. (On her prime-time Fox News show The Kelly File, Kelly had famously insisted that Santa Claus and Jesus are white, and had anchored multiple outraged segments concerning how the Obama Attorney General Eric Holder had failed to prosecute members of the New Black Panther Party for making white voters nervous at a Philadelphia polling place.)
Still, the current ratings uptick for Today’s third hour has done little to repair the damage sustained last year when NBC News Chairman Lack lured Kelly from Fox News to helm a Sunday magazine show—which was canceled, eight episodes in, after it failed to find an audience—and to replace the “Today’s Take” team of Roker and Tamron Hall.
According to Nielsen averages, during the 13-month lifespan of Megyn Kelly Today, total viewership plunged by a painful 21 percent compared to the Roker/Hall team’s ratings from September 2016 through early February 2017—when Tamron Hall abruptly quit NBC News after being informed that Kelly would replace her.
Worse, Kelly’s arrival at Today’s third hour coincided with a shocking 41 percent loss in the advertising sweet spot of women 18-49, and a 36 percent loss of women 25-54, according to the Nielsen averages.
“There was a time when Andy Lack was the smartest man in television news,” Tyndall said. “But that was in the 1990s.”
Of course Lack—who did preside over an eight-year winning steak at NBC News during the 1990s—has enjoyed a fair measure of success since his return to the network in April 2015.
Under his leadership, NBC News programs are thriving, as is MSNBC, the cable network he launched in 1996 and helped revamp over the past three years. In the bargain, Lack also managed to save the career of disgraced Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who now anchors MSNBC’s breaking news programming and helms an 11 p.m. show on the cable outlet.
Concerning Lack’s eagerness to recruit Kelly, Tyndall theorized: “The only way I can figure that it happened is they [Team Kelly] made a pitch to him that she was she was the next coming television star, and that wasn’t completely outrageous at the time, when they signed the deal….He hired her to be the next Diane Sawyer—for major interview gets and prime-time specials. And they couldn’t find anywhere else on the schedule to put her except for the 9 o’clock Today show.”
As for Kelly’s failed magazine show, Tyndall opined: “Of all [Lack’s] misjudgments, the most serious was thinking that this time NBC could put put together a prime-time hard news magazine that it had failed to do for the last 45 years, and that she would be the person who might be able to pull it off. I think he was blind to the gap between Fox News culture and the mainstream media culture.”
If so, Lack was hardly alone. A January 2015 profile of the then-44-year-old Fox News star, by The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg, announced “The Megyn Kelly Moment”—an apparently exciting period when nearly every television executive was lusting after her services.
Rutenberg quoted former CNN President Jonathan Klein: “If you’d have asked me who was the one talent you’d want to have from somewhere else, from another network, I would have said—and did—Megyn Kelly. She just hits the right notes.”
The morning show veteran, meanwhile, argued that Lack’s enthusiasm for Kelly fit into longtime narrative in the male-dominated TV newsbiz, going back at least to the time three decades ago when Today show host Jane Pauley was shunted aside in favor of Deborah Norville, a younger broadcast-ready blonde.
“It’s not that Andy Lack is ossified or not with it, because there are younger executives making similar decisions,” said the morning show veteran. “They’re always going after the bright shiny object. Executives often fall in love with hot female talent. And everybody wanted Megyn in 2016. Andy Lack was just unlucky enough to have pulled it off.”