NBC Bet $69 Million on Megyn Kelly—Then Viewers Vanished

Megyn Kelly was supposed to bring star power to NBC News and a bigger, broader audience of morning viewers to its “Today” show franchise.

Instead, the three-year, $69 million bet to woo Ms. Kelly from her conservative prime-time perch at Fox News is backfiring.

Since taking over the 9 a.m. hour of the lucrative morning show in September and rebranding it “Megyn Kelly Today,” Ms. Kelly has struggled to make the shift to daytime broadcast television, with its delicate balance of soft features and hard news. Her ratings declines and higher production costs have been a drag on a critical franchise for NBC.

“I need to introduce myself to people who don’t know me or know some bastardized version of me that they’ve gotten from a website or a TV show,” Ms. Kelly said in an interview. “There are definitely some who only know me through some caricature they learned about on ‘The Daily Show.’ ”

Some of NBC’s affiliate TV stations are unhappy with the drop in viewers, and staffers on other NBC News shows have been grumbling about Ms. Kelly’s lofty budget. Hollywood publicists started steering their A-list talent away from the program when a feud erupted with Jane Fonda after Ms. Kelly asked the actress on-air about her plastic surgery.

In addition, Ms. Kelly’s Sunday night newsmagazine, which premiered to disappointing ratings last summer, has been reduced to occasional prime-time specials.

NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack’s big bet on Ms. Kelly was a throwback to the golden age of broadcast news when networks routinely awarded so-called star anchors huge contracts, believing the face delivering the news was as important as the news itself.

Today, the landscape of network and cable television is so big that there isn’t one person who necessarily draws the kind of audience to justify that cost, said Marcy McGinnis, a 30-year veteran of CBS News who is now a consultant.

The turmoil during Ms. Kelly’s first year at NBC, and the high-profile exits of NBC’s Matt Lauer and CBS’s Charlie Rose due to sexual-harassment allegations, have shaken up morning TV news, underscoring the big risks of high-stakes wagers on celebrity news personalities.

With the audiences for morning and evening news shows on a slow decline for decades, the focus of most network news managers is on profit margins and reducing the high salaries of the former era.

When Diane Sawyer stepped down from anchoring ABC’s “World News Tonight” in 2014, relative unknown David Muir was given the job and ratings actually went up. After Katie Couric gave up anchoring “CBS Evening News,” she was replaced by the less-known Scott Pelley, who has subsequently been replaced by the even lesser-known Jeff Glor without a hit to ratings. Those anchors commanded significantly lower salaries than Ms. Sawyer and Ms. Couric.

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Source: Wall Street Journal