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A merciful end for NBC’s misguided, disastrous Megyn Kelly experiment

nbc megyn kelly
It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The Megyn Kelly show looks like it’s over at NBC News. The network has reportedly cancelled her morning program after she confessed on the air this week that she didn’t understand why wearing blackface for Halloween is racist.

Her comments, made during a discussion on Megyn Kelly Today, were apparently the final straw for NBC in what’s been an utter trainwreck of a relationship. Kelly has been embroiled in controversy after controversy ever since NBC lured her away from Fox News in 2017 on a highly lucrative three-year deal that was reported to be worth nearly $70 million.

Now that deal—mercifully—may be on the way to being scrapped about halfway through. Even if it amounts to something less than a full parting of the ways, an unceremonious end to her current arrangement would only underscore how much of an unmitigated disaster NBC News’s gamble on Kelly truly was.

The fit was wrong from the start

Kelly’s history of dubious racial comments was well known: She once suggested that Santa Claus, a fictional character, could not be black. She peddled conspiracies about the New Black Panther Party. She earnestly asked a guest on her Fox News show if Europe was “over” because of Muslim immigration.

Still, she amassed a large following at Fox and maintained a reputation as a hard-nosed, relatively moderate anchor within the conservative propaganda empire. Kelly was not the most radical persona at Fox, but she definitely had a point-of-view. (She notably did not seem as enamored with Donald Trump as most of her Fox News colleagues.) It was still far too much baggage to bring to NBC, a network that had recently gone out of its way to appear impartial, even anodyne.

Who can forget Matt Lauer’s embarrassingly ambivalent performance as moderator of a 2016 presidential forum, or The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon literally tousling Trump’s hair on the air? This was a network that badly didn’t want to be perceived as “liberal.” Hiring Kelly made some degree of sense on a superficial level—she was popular and wouldn’t get NBC News accused of being politically biased. She could have, theoretically, given the network access to an audience it hadn’t yet tapped into yet.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Nobody watched Megyn Kelly Today, including and perhaps especially fans from her Fox News days who probably viewed the defection to the sister network of MSNBC as treasonous. Ratings cratered a few months into her morning show’s existence. It garnered 18% fewer viewers than the show that it replaced, which was hosted by Al Roker and Tamron Hall. (The Wall Street Journal reported that Roker’s and Hall’s annual salaries were each less than half of Kelly’s $20 million-plus.) It was routinely dusted by ABC’s Live With Kelly and Ryan. It was apparent almost immediately that the wager on Kelly would not pay off no matter how much she tried to enrapture viewers with dance.

And then the real trouble began

The show even had difficulty booking guests, as publicists were worried about celebrity clients associating with Kelly’s brand, forever tainted by the association with Fox News, Variety reported last year. This was something NBC should have seen coming miles away. The structure of the deal itself was unwise: Kelly was given a three-year deal, worth approximately $23 million per year, to be a constant face at the network (in addition to her morning show, Kelly got her own Sunday night news program, which was canceled months ago with zero fanfare). There was no trial run, no contingency plan. NBC News was all-in.

Kelly’s gross comments about blackface opened up a convenient hatch through which NBC could try to escape. Even before those comments, the two parties were reportedly discussing options on how best to euthanize the sickly morning talk show, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Kelly was said to want to cover more news and politics and “move away from the lighter fare she often covers on her morning show”—even though the very first thing she said on her first episode in September 2017 was that she was done with politics. If it wasn’t clear then, it’s quite clear now that neither Kelly nor NBC knew exactly what they wanted out of this partnership.

The irony is that, despite Kelly’s contentious exit from Fox News, and her rightfully calling out her former employer over its mishandling of widespread sexual harassment allegations, she could regain her status as a conservative folk hero simply by virtue of being fired by NBC. She’ll be fine either way. If Kelly indeed leaves NBC for good, she will be many millions richer than she was a year and a half ago.

NBC will be OK too—the catastrophic Kelly saga is a genuine public-relations debacle, but not a permanent one. And while the sum it may have wasted on Kelly is nontrivial, it’s not too ruinous for a parent company that made $22 billion in revenue this past quarter alone. Though all parties involved will survive, it will forever be a stain on the Peacock brand that NBC surely wishes it could erase.

The biggest losers in all of this remain the viewers and non-viewers alike, who were subjected to it all.

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