NBC News officially canceled “Megyn Kelly Today” Friday afternoon. The decision ended a week of drama and speculation about the future of the highest-paid star in television news in the wake of comments she made defending wearing blackface on Halloween.
In a statement, the network said “’Megyn Kelly Today’ is not returning. Next week, the 9 a.m. hour will be hosted by other Today co-anchors.” Al Roker is expected to return to 9 a.m. The network did not specifically address Kelly’s future role at NBC, but she is expected to leave. Earlier Friday she and the network were in the midst of negotiating the terms of her departure, according to a statement from “Today.” NBC declined to comment further.
Bryan Freedman, Kelly’s attorney, said in a statement: “Megyn remains an employee of NBC News and discussions about next steps are continuing.”
So what went wrong with Kelly and NBC?
From a bad beginning to an inexpressibly awful end, Kelly was, as so many had predicted, doomed from the start at NBC. Perhaps even before the start. She sparked outrage among Fox News viewers after announcing the jump to the so-called enemy in early 2017. She stirred resentment, jealousy and suspicion at NBC, too. She was the big ticket (a reported $17 million, but possibly more) anchor who was either going to replace Matt Lauer one day or save the 9 a.m. corner of the franchise. She was the future with the complicated past — that one at Fox News.
She was also a “she” and no matter what anybody cares to think, women — particularly hugely well-compensated ones — have always had a more complicated and difficult path forward than their male counterparts in television news.
Then, finally, she got to work. Matters did not much improve from there. NBC prearranged an interview with Vladimir Putin that unintentionally served as window-dressing for the Russian leader instead of for its expensive new hire and her Sunday magazine.
That was followed by an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, to the accompaniment of outrage from Sandy Hook parents. (Jones had stated that the 2012 elementary-school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax using actors.) The interview broke no new ground, but did give Kelly a chance to look tough in front of an indefensible target. Nevertheless, the law of diminishing returns had set in and she still hadn’t launched the morning show.
When “Megyn Kelly Today” finally arrived on Sept. 25, 2017, the reviews were cruel — accurate but cruel — which indicated that Kelly hadn’t banked a shred of goodwill. Ratings were soft, too, which indicated she hadn’t banked any with viewers either.
Or, apparently, with guests: Debra Messing later said she regretted appearing on the show during a particularly soft in-show commercial for “Will & Grace.” Jane Fonda was visibly ruffled when pressed by Kelly about the “work” she had done on her face. Fonda, with daggers shooting from her eyes: “You really want to talk about that now?” Those all-knowing “sources” quoted in the tabloids said high-profile guests were refusing to come on the show. Maybe they did know something after all.
From there, matters actually seemed to improve. As billed, Kelly proved a sharp interviewer with live TV skills. She worked reasonably well before an audience — hardly her comfort zone — then luck seemed to turn a little more in her favor.
The #MeToo revolution broke just weeks into her tenure, and Kelly found common ground with millions of other women who had been sexually harassed by a male superior. Kelly, who wrote about her harassment by the former FNC chief Roger Ailes, covered #MeToo relentlessly. Ratings improved slightly, which was better than the alternative.
Kelly pressed hard on #MeToo and pressed NBC News to come clean, too, about its own culture of male entitlement. That did not go over well, and apparently opened a rift with management that never closed.
On Tuesday, everything came crashing down. As a veteran anchor employed by a national news network, Kelly should have known that a) there’s no conceivable argument in existence in support of blackface; and b) if any such anchor is foolish enough to mount one, then he or she should know that his or her tenure will be measured in days if not hours.
There’s an easy — and wrong — temptation to assume Kelly’s comments would have gone unnoticed at Fox. Laura Ingraham, for example, has been rebuked for comments about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor David Hogg, and for this comment last summer: “Massive demographic changes [have been] foisted on us, the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”
Meanwhile, NBC management — specifically news president Andrew Lack — has some measure of blame for this fiasco, too, notably for failing to read the mood of its own organization.
Star hires have always sparked resentment because they displace veterans and soak up resources, specifically money. Moreover, they tend to be a vestige of that money-is-no-object era in the ’80s and ’90s. Money is always an object, and one that tends to grow larger when ratings don’t materialize.
What’s next for Kelly? A return to FNC seems highly unlikely given the acrimony of her departure. A move to another network such as ABC or CBS seems like a longshot as well. What’s next? That’s the $17 million question.