Megyn Kelly’s much-publicized broadcast special with Donald Trump was supposed to launch the Fox News star into the stratosphere of television anchordom. Instead, the widely panned show seems to have achieved the opposite result: It exposed the extent of her limited mainstream appeal. Kelly drew just 4.8 million viewers on Tuesday night, a number television executives say is a disappointment by any measure. Three senior executives I spoke with say an audience of 9 million would have been a success. “Not good for her at all,” was how one insider put it.
In the days since, Kelly has been working to contain the fallout. She took aim at critics on her cable show Wednesday night by deploying an age-old Fox News tactic: claiming the backlash was a result of liberal media bias. But behind the scenes, she is said to be worried about the response. “She’s very upset with the show reaction, and in hindsight with how it was produced,” one Fox veteran told me.
The stakes for Kelly are high. As the Times recently reported, she’s in the final year of her contract and has been on a media blitz campaigning for a bigger job at Fox or another network. In recent interviews, she’s said her ambition is to be a combination of Oprah, Charlie Rose, and Barbara Walters. The special was essentially a public interview for her next job. But Kelly’s chummy treatment of Trump may have damaged her brand as tough and fair-minded (this being Fox, the bar was pretty low). Worse, she cozied up to Trump at the very moment Rupert Murdoch decided Fox News will support the GOP front-runner. By lobbing softballs — or, as Times TV critic James Poniewozik described her questions, “airballs” — at Trump, Kelly came across like any other GOP cheerleader at the right-wing network.
The question for Kelly and her agents at CAA is where to go from here. Before the special, she had maneuvered herself into a position of significant leverage over her boss Roger Ailes and seemed poised to land either a new deal from Fox with a salary in the $25 million range or a plum job at another network. Industry sources said Ailes couldn’t afford to lose Kelly. Now her advantage looks smaller — a turn of events that surely pleases Ailes. According to one Fox insider, Ailes was heard “snickering” in a meeting yesterday when the topic of Kelly’s special came up in conversation. (Ailes’s spokesperson Irena Briganti did not respond to a request for comment.)
For their part, Kelly’s team doesn’t seem eager to talk about the program. When I called her CAA agent Matt DelPiano to ask him about the special, he hung up.