Megyn Kelly, soon to be erstwhile host of “The Kelly File” and joining NBC later this year, ended her program Tuesday night with this: “Finally a personal and professional note, from me to you ... ”
She went on to thank staff and viewers, then segued to the heart, citing the love she has for the latter, with a qualification: “Perhaps it’s not true love but it’s the kind of feeling that makes one feel connected to another human being, because I believe that’s why we’re here -- human connection. I need more of that in my life, particularly when it comes to my children, age 7, 5, and 3. So, I’m leaving and starting a new adventure ...”
And with that, the single largest talent exodus in Fox News history made it all official, leaving only questions in her wake.
So let’s get to some of those. Why is she leaving and what does this mean for television news?
Why is she leaving?
The usual default answer (money) does not appear to apply here. Kelly had a generous offer to stay -- $25 million to stay, although depending on the reports, that figure may have materialized late in the Fox negotiation. But either $20 or $25 million -- almost certainly much less at NBC ... what’s a few million here or there? The fact is, Kelly at a post- (Roger)-Ailes Fox had limited options, all of those (in fact) limited to 9 p.m. To believe her farewell comment, that singular option precluded more time or any time with her young children.
But (really) a full-time job is a full-time job. Won’t she have even less time with her kids as host of a Sunday prime-time program, and weekday series?
It is true that there is no job in media that soaks up more time that a high-profile television one. There is the travel. There is the constant demand for airtime. There is breaking news. There is all-consuming demand of a daily show which requires close attention to booking and sundry other television production issues. By the end of all this, there is hardly time left over for sleep much less for the kids. Nevertheless ... there are ways to handle it. Depending on the airtime -- let’s say, hypothetically 2 p.m. (although late morning seems more likely) -- she could be home in time for the kids. She could see them off to school in the morning. She could make time for the most important quality time in the world -- that time with your children. Katie Couric managed the feat with her two young daughters. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t work, if Kelly wants it to. So maybe we should take her at her word here: This is a very good reason to join NBC.
Daytime TV? Seriously?
Well, yes, you detected a note of cynicism in that question, perhaps. But let’s set that aside. Daytime TV is simply brutal. The audience may be vast, but largely settled. Viewers aren’t looking for The Next Oprah. They’re content with what they’ve already got. Daytime is fallow territory for court shows (“Judge Judy”), soaps, albeit dramatically less so in recent years (“The Bold and the Beautiful”), game shows (“The Price is Right”), and syndicated talk. Especially syndicated talk -- “Steve Harvey,” “Live with Kelly,” “Dr. Phil,” and so on. What you don’t see in this list is “serious news program,” or even quasi-serious. There’s certainly no reason Kelly can’t do a version of “Ellen” for NBC -- except viewers already have “Ellen.” Another “Ellen” would be redundant. There’s no reason Kelly can’t step into the news breach either -- a serious show on politics, for example.
In fact, there is a reason: No one would watch. It would be dead on arrival.
Despite what NBC says, or what she says, the options here are limited. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the possibility of an NBC version of either “The Talk” or “The View” with Kelly in the role of moderator-in-chief. As she’s proved on “Live,” she’s a particularly facile live morning talker. No reason that skill can’t be expanded to a panel-type program that indeed covers soft topics and serious ones as well.
What about Sunday night?
Again, it’s easy to suggest this is a non-starter because of the competition (“60 Minutes”) until you stop to consider that Sunday on NBC is the most viewed night on television in the WORLD. (And it’s a big world out there.) “Dateline” hasn’t just survived here over the years but thrived. There’s plenty of room. Or is there? The most obvious scenario here is a 7, except that’s a nightmare scenario for “Dateline,” which then has to recalibrate budgets to accommodate a reduced prime-time presence. (Translation: It would hurt REAL bad.)
But what about football?
Yes, what about football? Football consumes NBC’s entire prime-time schedule in the fall, from 7 p.m. onward. There’s presumably no entry point for Kelly here. That leaves spring and summer. A Kelly series could air then at 8, or later. But if memory serves, star-driven prime-time news programs -- with stars that have included Tom Brokaw, Couric and Brian Williams -- have fared poorly to disastrously. There have been many noble failures in this particular space over the years. In fact, a Kelly role on “Dateline” actually makes the most sense here -- an established franchise hitched to an established star. But that’s probably not what she is expecting.
What about “Today?”
“Today” is the most important non-sports franchise on television, yet it continues to wrestle with both the present and future. The present looks good -- it’s made major inroads on “GMA.” The future looks complicated. Billy Bush’s firing from the 9 a.m. hour means that critical morning linchpin remains a work in progress. Could Kelly find a role here? Could she find a role on the 7 a.m. program in addition to her daytime show? It’s impossible to say what she has contractually bound NBC to, or vice versa, but at NBC all roads lead to either “Today” or “Nightly News.” Those are the franchises. Therefore, I fully expect to see Kelly contribute to both, either as a contributor, or occasional host or co-anchor.
What will Fox News do at 9?
Alas, I must go to the go-to source on this matter, Gabriel Sherman, New York magazine scribe who has literally written the book on Fox News, along with the book on the fallout from the Roger Ailes sexual harassment scandals. Per Sherman: “Inside Fox News, staffers are speculating over who will replace Kelly. According to insiders I spoke with Monday, the consensus seems to be that the Murdochs will choose a woman to fill her 9 p.m. time slot. The leading internal contenders include Trish Regan, Shannon Bream, Sandra Smith, and Martha MacCallum. Two sources said Kimberly Guilfoyle is lobbying for the job.”
Fox News will go with a female anchor, and it seems reasonable to to me the highly capable MacCallum would be an easy choice. But these matters are never easy. In the wake of Kelly’s departure, Bill O’Reilly suddenly assumes even greater importance at Fox -- a reason why some industry observers Monday said he’s the happiest man in television news at the moment. “The O’Reilly Factor” lead-in was critical in to the success of “The Kelly Factor” and will be critical to the successor show, so who does O’Reilly want at 9? Moreover, “The Kelly File” in some minds represented a moderating tone at Fox in prime-time, much as “Shepard Smith Reporting” does during the day -- less overtly political. Will Fox seek another host who is putatively apolitical or -- as Sherman and others speculate -- explore the possibility of a show and host more overtly friendly to the incoming Trump administration?
The problem for Fox sounds serious, but it’s hardly that. A new host will be found. A 9 p.m. show will be successful -- consider that a given. Or it will be a “given” as long as “The Factor” is there to prop it up.