The Murdoch family, which controls Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, had become so invested in Megyn Kelly as a franchise that they were prepared to pay her a salary of more than $20 million a year.
For Megyn Kelly, the shift from Fox News to NBC — where she will host a daily daytime show and a Sunday newsmagazine program — will be a test of whether she can connect with a broader audience in a different format and reach another level of television stardom.
But her move, announced Tuesday, has broader implications for the television news industry, raising new questions about the future of Fox News, where she was a countervailing presence in a lineup heavy in right-leaning ideology, and of NBC News, which has been a longtime bête noire for conservative media critics. And it comes as all news organizations gird for the new era that arrives Jan. 20 with the inauguration of Donald Trump.
The Murdoch family, which controls Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, had become so invested in Kelly as a franchise that they were prepared to pay her a salary of more than $20 million a year.
People inside and outside the network widely took that to mean the Murdochs were staking the network’s future on a journalist who effectively made her name by upending the expectations for a Fox News anchor — for instance, by publicly taking on the Republican nominee for president.
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Fox News, long the cable-news ratings leader, is now on course to begin coverage of Trump’s presidency with no prime-time star who has Kelly’s history of challenging Trump. Her prime-time show, “The Kelly File,” was sandwiched between the top-rated program of Bill O’Reilly — she was regularly second to him in the cable-news ratings — and that of Trump’s major booster, Sean Hannity.
Her departure, coming after that of Greta Van Susteren, also means that Fox’s prime-time lineup faces the prospect of having no female host for the first time in its 20-year history, potentially troubling for the network as its seeks to shake the aftermath of last summer involving the network’s co-founder and former chairman, Roger Ailes, in which many women described its culture as intimidating for women.
For NBC, the addition of Kelly may help address a need many major news organizations are confronting following the election of Trump: connecting with a more diverse audience. In bringing Kelly to NBC, Andrew Lack, the chairman of the news division, is adding a journalist schooled in the preferences and worldviews of the conservative Americans who helped elect Trump, and whose anger so many news organizations failed to appreciate.
Kelly’s move represents one of the most closely watched by an anchor in a decade. It also capped months of drama in the political sphere, in which Kelly was often at the center of Trump’s intense, anti-press campaign, and in the media world, where she became a key figure in the events that led to Ailes’ ouster. Kelly was the most prominent among a group of women at the network who told internal investigators that Ailes had engaged in inappropriate behavior. (Ailes has denied all the accusations).
Despite its offer to retain Kelly, and despite the fact that Fox News seemed to have been taken by surprise at least by the timing of her decision, Rupert Murdoch, whose bare-knuckled negotiation tactics are legendary, offered a supportive statement about her decision to leave.
“We thank Megyn Kelly for her 12 years of contributions to Fox News,” the statement read. “We hope she enjoys tremendous success in her career and wish her and her family the best.”
Though the loss of Kelly is a blow to Fox News, the network has a winning formula that has kept it atop the ratings news for many years, and helped it to avoid the fall-offs its rivals experienced in the weeks after Election Day, as The Associated Press reported. And now Fox has a new Republican president whose approach speaks to the sensibilities of many of its viewers.
Company executives said the Murdochs knew Kelly was a likely flight risk; their offer included keeping her in prime time, and she had made it clear she was seeking a job that would give her more time for her family life.
Kelly had spoken with top executives at ABC News, CNN and in syndication, as well as NBC News, but NBC remained largely under the radar as a landing spot. One person briefed on Kelly’s deliberations said that Lack won her over by starting the talks with a question about what she was seeking, instead of flatly offering possibilities.
He then came back with a deal that was tailored to her preferences. A daytime show would give her a schedule that would allow her to see her children off to school and to have dinner with them and her husband, Douglas Brunt, a novelist.
People briefed on the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, declined to disclose what Kelly’s new annual salary would be at NBC. Fox News rivals who sought to hire Kelly away, including NBC News, had made it clear that they could not match the $20 million offer from Fox, the cable news leader for the last 15 years running.
But even a modest raise for Kelly would place her among television’s highest paid journalists. The Wall Street Journal recently reported she was to collect $15 million for the final year of her contract.
Her high price tag was worth it for Lack, who took over leadership of NBC News and MSNBC in 2015, 14 years after he had ended an eight-year tenure running the divisions. Executives at NBC Universal turned to him to stabilize the network following the suspension of the nightly news anchor Brian Williams for embellishing accounts of his time in Iraq, and as MSNBC foundered in the ratings.
Among his moves since returning has been to direct MSNBC back toward more traditional, hard-news coverage during its daytime hours — like its cable-news rivals, it hit all-time ratings highs last year — and away from its yearslong market position as a liberal-leaning answer to Fox News, which at times colored the reputation of its sister, NBC News. Kelly will not be reporting for MSNBC, which still has liberal-leaning prime-time hosts like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell.
In a brief interview, Lack said he would be closely involved in the creation of Kelly’s daytime show, which will run Monday through Friday at a time to be determined, as well as the one she will anchor on Sunday nights. That show will be in the vein of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” where Lack worked early in his career.
“The thing about this that is challenging but exciting as hell is that we love making new shows,” he said. “You don’t get that opportunity that often any more, and you don’t get the opportunity to do that with a talent like Megyn.”
Yet the move has its risks for all involved, especially the daytime program. Daytime television has been notoriously difficult for news stars.
People involved in the discussions said that the program was not planned to be in the mold of a traditional daytime talk show, nor much like the soft-focus prime-time special Kelly hosted last May on the Fox broadcast network, which drew some harsh criticism (some of which Kelly dismissed as liberal disappointment with a friendly interview with Trump).
Kelly had described her fantasy television show in an interview with Charlie Rose on “CBS Sunday Morning” last year. “How about if we merge a little Charlie Rose, a little Oprah, and a little me all together,’’ she said. “And we serve that up as an hour? Wouldn’t you watch that?”
Kelly, whose last show on Fox News comes Friday, kept a relatively low profile Tuesday, addressing her own news in a Facebook post in which she thanked the Murdochs and said her time at the network had “changed my life.’’ Still, she wrote, she was delighted to be “taking on a new challenge.’’