Former Fox News Channel host Megyn Kelly starts her NBC News career Sunday at 7 p.m., as anchor of “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly,” opposite “60 Minutes” and a prime-time edition of “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” There’s lots to cover here, so let’s get straight to the questions . . . and answers:
What is “Sunday Night”?
A traditional news magazine, with a lead story, and “back of the book” ones, expected to be reported by Kelly but more often by those reliable and familiar correspondents who have served “Dateline” so well over the years, like Josh Mankiewicz, Cynthia McFadden and Keith Morrison. Harry Smith has a piece Sunday (on elephant poaching).
What will Kelly do this Sunday?
At press time, NBC hadn’t said anything, other than confirming she will moderate a forum at the St. Petersburg International Economics Forum, which began Thursday. Yes, this does sound deadly, but Kelly will also interview Vladimir Putin. That should be this Sunday’s big carrot.
Why all this fuss over Kelly anyway?
Because she’s a star — as breathless coverage in places like Vanity Fair and Time have reminded you in the run-up to this launch. There is a critical shortage of old-fashioned star power in network news, with Barbara Walters’ retirement, Diane Sawyer’s gradual withdrawal and Brian Williams’ “Nightly News” banishment. Stars like Kelly sell magazines, generate “unique page views” and get the average Joe to talk . . . about her. What’s unknown is whether it will get them to watch.
What are the risks for Kelly?
Practically speaking, there is no risk for her. She is officially the highest-salaried female anchor in TV news history (an estimated $15 million-$20 million per year, although likely closer to the latter) and not that far off from being the highest of anyone (Matt Lauer remains the record-holder, at a guesstimated $25 million annually). Most people would call this the catbird seat. Nevertheless, there is a lingering question about the so-called “Fox News Nation,” a passionate body of viewers, some of whom saw her as hostile to then-candidate Donald Trump during the first Republican primary debate in 2015. Trump fueled the antipathy with a subsequent anti-Kelly tweet storm (the two more or less made up in a highly promoted interview). There was also FNC chief Roger Ailes, whom she had called a “friend and mentor” in a 2015 Charlie Rose interview, then later told 21st Century Fox investigators he had sexually harassed her when she was a young reporter. That led to Ailes’ forced departure in 2016 (he died May 18), and the network has struggled since. Other than Bill O’Reilly — also now deposed — no one has questioned Kelly’s decision to call out Ailes’ behavior, which supported the claims of numerous other women at Fox News. Moreover, her tough questioning of Trump at both debates was widely praised. Nevertheless, she has a complicated history at a controversial network — and such a history could affect how viewers will embrace her at NBC.
But they’re a relatively small body of viewers. Why should that matter to her at NBC?
Only because they also tend to be the type of viewers who watch prime-time news magazines (like “60 Minutes”). Kelly and NBC need the 60-and-older crowd to make this magazine succeed. Otherwise, they’ll be scratching for young viewers, who barely watch TV news regularly, much less the magazine programs. It should be noted that the much-hyped and critically demolished “Megyn Kelly Presents” on Fox last May — which included that much-hyped makeup interview with Trump — mustered less than five million viewers for a third-place finish.
What are the risks for NBC News?
Ask first what are the advantages other than star wattage. Kelly is excellent on live TV, and thinks on her feet. She’s an intelligent interviewer, and as seen on “The Kelly File,” an appropriately tough one, too. She’s versatile, and able to juggle hard news along with froth, which may be the reason her future hosting a new 9 a.m. weekday show this September (and possibly her future at “Today”) is of greater consequence than a Sunday news magazine. Nevertheless, this magazine must succeed. It’s part of the re-calibration of her image and transition from a conservative news network to a mainstream one. In addition, what you’ll see Sunday really is a new Megyn Kelly in a new role, on the cusp of a brand-new future. If “Sunday Night” soars, then her morning future dawns ever brighter. If it bombs, the clouds gather along with the told-ya-so’s.