Will Megyn Kelly Survive the Perils of Daytime TV?

The Daily Beast

January 4, 2017

Brave is the anchor that ventures into daytime television. It feels safe, it looks safe from the outside: that mix of light celebrity chitter-chatter and self-promotion, cooking, family matters, political polemicizing (if you’re on The View), relationship and health advice, fashion, and makeovers. It should be a prize or laurel for the host that has worked hard and forged a special connection with viewers.

But it is not as easy as it looks, or easy to get right—as the ill-fated examples of Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira, and Anderson Cooper bear out. In recent years, solo anchors have fared less well than the collectively framed The View and The Talk.

Megyn Kelly and NBC executives will be working hard to create the right blend for her when she joins the network. As per yesterday’s announcement by Andrew Lack, Chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, Kelly will become the anchor of “a new one hour daytime program that she will develop closely with NBC News colleagues. The show will air Monday through Friday at a time to be announced in the coming months.

“As part of the multi-year agreement, Kelly will also anchor a new Sunday evening news magazine show and will become an important contributor to NBC’s breaking news coverage as well as the network’s political and special events coverage.” Reports Wednesday signaled that Kelly would likely inhabit what is currently the third hour of the Today show, between 9 and 10 a.m.

The daytime venture is the most unknown, untested, and therefore ambitious of Kelly’s NBC hats to wear. Apart from an appearance co-hosting with Kelly Ripa on her ABC show Live (itself the subject of volcanic behind-the-scenes ructions after the departure of co-host Michael Strahan last year), Megyn Kelly has never done daytime.

Unlike Couric and Vieira, the daytime audience doesn’t know Kelly. She has never spoken to a daytime audience—quite the opposite, she is known for being partisan, tough, and interrogatory in the night-time hours, snappily working over the political remains of the day, and hoping to make headlines with the newsmakers brave enough to accept her invitations for interview.

That Megyn Kelly became such a hot media property was down to her challenging question to Donald Trump on his sexism and misogyny at the first Republican candidates’ debate.

It would be ironic if that moment of danger, bravery, and confrontation—which crystallized her own star power, both financially and culturally—was smoothed off to something tamer and safer in her reward of a more lucrative job at NBC.

Will Kelly have to change that much (and who can wait for the first Megyn Kelly cake-decorating segment?), or will NBC executives try something wholly original and let Kelly channel what she is best known for—though would an NBC daytime want that? She has said she believes there is a left-wing bias in the media, and now she will be operating centrally within that.

Does NBC see her comparatively conservative voice as a plus with the Republicans in total power, even if that same voice was seen as moderate and kinda left-wing alongside the likes of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly on Fox News? Her Trump confrontation was a significant line in the cultural sand: a moment of modern feminism that muddied more critical perceptions of Kelly as a racist.

There may well be more than one Megyn Kelly in public view on NBC. Can viewers expect a softer Kelly during the day, a harder-edged journalist-blurring-with-polemicist for the Sunday night show, and then a firm anchor for the larger national and political events?

The daytime show could be a mix of elements, of course, drawing on different aspects of Kelly’s personality. In an interview with Charlie Rose on CBS’s Sunday Morning last year, Kelly herself said—asked by Rose “What is the perfect show for Megyn Kelly to do?”—Kelly said, “How about if we merge a little Charlie Rose, a little Oprah, and a little me all together? And we serve that up as an hour? Wouldn’t you watch that?” Rose chuckled that he would; the NBC audience may be a different matter.

Where the show is positioned in the schedule is key. The four-hour leviathan of the Today show presently has a weak link of 9-10 a.m. (the 7-9 a.m. is the province of Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, and the 10 a.m. double-act show of Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford is immensely popular).

The ‘third hour’ has been a jarring presence, and discordantly unfixed property for different reasons in recent years. The ‘Today’s Talk’ quartet of Willie Geist, Tamron Hall, Al Roker, and Natalie Morales often felt like a tonally chaotic mess. Geist was given his own Sunday show, and Morales moved to Los Angeles to present Access Hollywood Live with Kit Hoover after Hoover’s co-host Billy Bush was parachuted in to the 9 a.m. slot with Hall and Roker.

That configuration felt amiss from the get-go. The trio didn’t gel, despite all the folksiness and stories and pictures of “family” Bush came laden with. Even before he officially started came Bush’s Olympics interview with Ryan Lochte, who was later shown to have lied about a night-time incident in Rio.

Roker humiliatingly challenged Bush on-air about that, and then came Bush’s part in Donald Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” remarks. Bush was soon unceremoniously out of a job.

Now the third hour is primarily hosted by Hall and Roker, with guest hosts filling the spare seats.

The 9 a.m. hour would be the natural territory for Kelly to make her own, rather than originating a show, which would more turbulently bounce around the schedules and affiliates later in the day. (But what, then, for Hall and Roker?)

If it was a shock for Couric and Vieira to fail with self-hosted daytime shows when they were so locked into the audiences’ psyches, the challenge for Kelly will be even greater: she has to simultaneously cultivate a new audience and a new tone.

Will she be able to completely tamp down on the Kelly instinct to go for the jugular or cut short and shout down the guest who is irritating her? That kind of combativeness is rarely seen in daytime, unless in the confessional and confrontational arenas of Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer.

Whatever formulas are being mixed by Kelly and NBC executives, “family” is a word we can expect to hear a lot from her and NBC in the coming weeks. NBC and its anchors are obsessed with the word and what it connotes, and so are other networks, because it gives the right warm and cozy sheen to morning shows like Today and Good Morning America, both squarely aimed at families, and women viewers (whether working or stay-at-home) with families. It says something about the network, the network hopes, and the audience the network wants to attract.

According to The New York Times, family was key to Kelly’s decision. Fox offered her $20 million to stay, but NBC offered a deal that would take into account the schedule of her family, which includes three school-age children.

On Wednesday morning, in the fourth hour of Today, Hoda Kotb invoked it to welcome Kelly to “the NBC family,” immediately inviting her to “share a sippy” (glass of wine, the ongoing prop that her and Kathie Lee Gifford’s morning show is famous for), and to call Kelly “our friend” and “a lot of fun.” The tone is not: “We are welcoming a huge star, and an intimidating media power player,” but “Great, we have a new gal pal to share a laugh with in the mornings.”

No matter the astronomical salaries the presenters command. No matter the agents and backroom wheeling and dealing that got Kelly to NBC. No matter the ranks of PR professionals keeping images unsullied, and all those big personalities a harmonious, joshing sofa collective.

No matter the competition and outsized egos. Put all those people on the sofa, have them describe themselves as “family,” and you hope to magically make the brand extension from their sofa to yours. NBC has also shamelessly used puppies to help do this. There is no time to waste making Megyn Kelly a member of the “NBC family.”

Behind the scenes, away from all this well-oiled onscreen camaraderie and tweeted congratulations, imagine a lot of phone calls and maneuvering about whose territory Kelly may be encroaching upon in order to anchor those major political and news events, and what accommodations to the pecking order will have to be made to keep her happy and the rest of the NBC peacocks, who will be fanning their tails restlessly in anticipation of Kelly’s arrival.

Will Kelly get to host the debates and conduct the big interviews Matt Lauer or Lester Holt or Savannah Guthrie or Chuck Todd would ordinarily get? What jockeying for pole position will unfold?

The invoking of “family,” the basic social unit and the all-ameliorating comfort blanket the word embodies, is supposed to nullify any perception of a backstage snakepit, and make the network appear as warmly cohesive as the “families” they address.

How much better to speak to families if you have co-opted the word yourself to describe the people you wake up to, or entrust with the deliverance of the daily news? “Family” is supposed to symbolize trust and security on the part of networks.

Kelly herself used it in her statement yesterday, claiming she was “delighted” to join the “NBC News family.”

And then later, announcing that her last show would be on Friday, Kelly told her Fox News viewers in a “personal and professional note, from me to you,” that it was a tough decision to leave Fox News. She thanked the Murdoch family, her colleagues were, she said, “second family.”

It was a strange message, nuanced and oddly complicated, about deep emotions delivered slightly robotically.

“I don’t know most of you, so perhaps it’s not true love,” Kelly said of her relationship to viewers. “But it’s the kind of feeling makes one feel connected to another human being, and that’s why I believe we’re here–human connection. The truth is I need more of that in my life, particularly when comes to my children who are 7, 5, and 3.”

This is an important reference: whether intentionally or not (although the statement felt extremely calculated and carefully worded), Kelly is positioning her family, and parenting responsibilities, as one of the key motivations in her decision to change her professional life—a perfect triangulation for NBC, whose anchors are expected to talk about their children, parents, and marriages, to again underline that connection to families and women with families watching.

Kelly will doubtlessly invoke her family, and parenting, in her new daytime show, and this—the as-yet unexplored hinterland of her personal life—we can expect to hear a lot more of: The references to the children, family days out, and birthday parties may become part of Kelly’s new daytime persona.

How convincingly she balances these different professional images will govern her success with the audience. Just as the daytime formula looks easy, but isn’t, so the unwitting anchor and producer also underestimates the watching audience at their peril.

Kotb and Gifford, Ripa and Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar are successful daytime hosts because, amid the family photos and easy joshing, they never talk down the audience. They get angry as well as laugh. We know what riles them, what makes them passionate. They invite the audience in, and invite them in on both the jokes, and the not-jokes, and it’s their glints of seriousness which makes them feel close and honest.

The intimacy rarely gets too real, but feels real enough, which is why Kelly Ripa could get away from walking away from her show for a few days, and—on her return—delivering a speech which made very clear how delicately interconnected she saw her relationship with her bosses and her relationship the viewers, the violation of which, she made every clear, she took extremely seriously. That brouhaha made clear how gravely serious the power-play of daytime is, invisibly cloaked as it might be with folksiness and bonhomie.

The unknowns are many for Megyn Kelly. Will her Fox viewership follow her? It would seem, at least online, many are fiercely partisan to her host network rather than her. Will NBC viewers take to her? How much will Kelly change, politically as well as personally—if at all? Suddenly the peacock must accommodate a chameleon. We can expect a lot more ruffled feathers alongside the recipe segments.