A recent episode of Megyn Kelly Today ended with a segment called “Underneath It All: Best Bras for Your Body.” In it, Kelly interviewed “bra-fitting expert” Kimmay Caldwell about how best to choose a T-shirt bra, how to avoid “the bulgy situation in the back,” and so on. Though Kelly did her best to appear engaged during the three-minute piece, gamely saying things like “lacy numbers intimidate me,” her heart clearly wasn’t in it — and why should it be? Just because she’s a woman and women wear bras, it doesn’t naturally follow that Kelly should want to talk about bras as part of her job. And so what NBC got instead was an accomplished broadcast journalist doing her darndest to make viewers believe that she cares about whether or not “it’s okay to show your bra in 2018.”
I bring this up because Kelly is currently the subject of an immense amount of schadenfreude-y scrutiny after an April 25th Wall Street Journal article declared, “NBC Bet $69 Million on Megyn Kelly — Then Viewers Vanished.” Those viewers, it seems, are heading over to Live With Kelly and Ryan — which is currently beating Kelly’s hour of Today by nearly 750,000 viewers on average, according to WSJ. The article notes grimly that Kelly’s “ratings declines and higher production costs have been a drag on a critical franchise for NBC.”
Putting aside whether or not NBC overpaid for Kelly — and Lord knows, the former Fox News host should not be faulted for negotiating the largest paycheck possible — the question is, what can the network do now to help her ratings? Besides issuing a “no more bra-fitting segments” decree, I think the best thing NBC can do is this: Let Megyn Kelly be unlikable — because that is what made her a star.
At Fox News, Kelly — a former lawyer — was known as a confident, sometimes tough interviewer who had no problem pushing back on subjects who tried to steamroll her with vague evasions and less-than-credible talking points. (See: This testy exchange with then-candidate Donald Trump about his many disparaging comments about women.) She said plenty of stupid stuff, too — like insisting that Santa Claus is white and, more recently, claiming that Hillary Clinton “never inspired anyone” — and was rightfully pilloried anytime she uttered an offensive opinion. But at least she was allowed to have opinions on Fox News, no matter how misguided; on Today, meanwhile, the producers (and maybe even Kelly herself) seem so fixated on making her “relatable” and “likable” that they’ve stripped her of the personality that made her interesting to watch — or hate-watch.
A quick case study: First, check out this 2016 segment from Fox News’ The Kelly File, in which the host scraps with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich about alleged “media bias” against then-candidate Trump. The woman we see here is passionate, determined, tenacious, assertive — one might even call her a bitch, in the best possible sense of the word.
Now, take a look at this piece from Kelly’s “Mommy Burnout” series on Today, in which the host talks to mothers who are struggling with the immense pressures of raising a family. It’s an important topic, for sure, and one that Kelly, herself a mother of three, can likely empathize with — but that doesn’t mean she’s interested in (or equipped to) exploring this issue on camera. In so many of these human interest segments, Kelly seems just a little removed, like she’s overthinking her every response, every “concerned listening face,” rather than truly being in the moment.
That isn’t to say that Kelly isn’t actually interested in the people she talks to; it’s just hard to escape the feeling that she might be a lot more engaged if she were doing something else. So far on Today, the closest Kelly has come to her previous levels of passion was during a blistering October 23rd monologue about Bill O’Reilly and the culture of sexual harassment at Fox News during her time at the network. (In her 2016 memoir, Kelly alleged that she was sexually harassed by former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.)
“Women everywhere are used to being dismissed, ignored, or attacked when raising complaints about men in authority positions,” she said, addressing the camera (and perhaps O’Reilly himself) directly. “It has to stop.”
Amen, sister! You don’t have to agree with Megyn Kelly’s politics (side note: I don’t) to recognize that she is at her best when she’s holding powerful people accountable — and if NBC really wants her hour of Today to flourish, they should harness Kelly’s polarizing personality. Drop the human interest stuff (there’s enough of that on morning TV already) and let Kelly tackle the news and culture headlines of the day, putting the screws to problematic newsmakers through in-studio interviews and good old-fashioned into-the-camera editorials. While something about Megyn Kelly Today clearly has to change, trying to change the host isn’t the answer.