Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Some things don’t go together: brussels sprouts and bubblegum; cats and canaries; Megyn Kelly and NBC News.
In each of those cases the mismatched mix should be obvious, but somehow NBC missed the telltale signs of how off and off-putting the combination of Kelly’s views, especially on race relations, would be with NBC’s own, more conventional positions. The network’s top news executive, Andrew Lack, decided to woo Kelly away from her Fox News prime time show almost two years ago, and insert her in a starring role in the 9 a.m. timeslot for his network’s long-running hit, the Today show.
Lack, who was hardly alone in media circles in pursuing Kelly, may have been blinded by a familiar malady of television executives: glamour glare. That’s the effect that sometimes emanates from a glowing-hot on-air talent. It can lead to temporary loss of vision.
Events of recent months, especially of the past week, seem to indicate vision has been restored, though the cost of the fix — $69 million — might be deemed a tad pricey. That’s not great news for Lack, it’s fair to assume.
The denouement of the drama that has surrounded Kelly since the day she arrived at NBC seems to be upon us. The network formally canceled her show Friday with the expectation that she will have no further role at the network.
The experiment put in place by Lack — having Kelly, who had been icily appealing on Fox News as a solo act, try to emulate Oprah Winfrey by playing warm and wise with a studio audience — moved quickly from misbegotten to miserable. Ratings were tepid to worse, critical evaluation was scathing, internal dissension at NBC News over the move was widespread, and then there were those moments where fingernails met blackboards: comments that sounded like body shaming; guests that came away alienated (Jane Fonda, Debra Messing); the persistent awkwardness in performance; and the occasional whiff of what might kindly be labeled racial insensitivity.
The past week brought intense focus on Kelly’s tone-deaf dismissal as “politically correct” of the idea that African Americans take offense at white people in blackface. But she had a documented history of such insensitivity, having, during her Fox News days, accused some in the black community of a “thug mentality.”
And, of course there was her famous insistence that Santa Claus should never be portrayed by a black performer because he is — though fictional — definitively white. You might be able to make a fair case that it could be a risk to hire anyone who cares that much about the race of Santa Claus.
NBC apparently shrugged off those concerns when it landed Kelly at what has been reported to be $23 million a year. The shrug included the decision to have her replace two black anchors, Tamron Hall and Al Roker, who were making far less money (and, as things have worked out, were drawing better ratings).
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Lack certainly has had a long and distinguished career in news, and retains high cards in his hand, including increasing ratings at MSNBC as well as the status of Today and NBC Nightly News, all of which he has played well. But for a time he seemed seduced by the idea of stretching the appeal of NBC News to followers of the new regime in Washington. Thus Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, got a show on MSNBC, by then established as a liberal stronghold, and Megyn Kelly, whose views only occasionally veered away from the usual Fox News right-tilted narrative, moved into what had been the neutral territory of Today’s 9 a.m. hour.
Both those gambits have now foundered. At least Hewitt’s sour note in MSNBC’s otherwise left-leaning musical score didn’t involve a lottery-ticket payoff.
Just how bad was the mistake of hiring Megyn Kelly? If it involves loud discord within the news division staff, low ratings, racially charged remarks, and a check that could fund the entire roster of a small-market baseball team, it likely qualifies as a mistake with little chance of going unnoticed.
If past is prologue, and it usually is in the television business, all of that could play a hand in future decisions about the leadership at NBC News.
It probably doesn’t help that another recent NBC News talent decision has not worked out well either. Not too long after hiring Kelly, Lack made the call to let Ronan Farrow go — just before his work won numerous prizes, including a Pulitzer for his reporting on the sexual improprieties of numerous media figures.