Fox News Channel anchor Megyn Kelly’s year can be compared to a pro athlete having a career season before becoming a free agent.
Her debate showdown with the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in August raised her profile enough to make her a magazine cover subject, coveted talk show guest and trending Twitter topic. Even though Kelly’s recent squishy interview with Trump on a prime-time Fox broadcast special was panned by critics who earlier applauded her ability to stand up to the candidate, TV news executives and agents say she is still expected to draw strong interest from other networks when her deal with Fox News comes up in July 2017.
Kelly has said she’s undecided about her future with Fox News. But if she becomes available, the competition for her services will be a test of the value of star power at a time when TV news is trying to control costs.
The leaner economic times for the network news business have made moves by big star anchors less frequent and bidding wars rare. Networks increasingly rely on developing their own talent and paying them accordingly once they become proven ratings attractions. And based on past moves by star anchors, there is no guarantee on how many viewers will follow someone to a new outlet.
“History will tell you that it’s very hard to go across the street to succeed,” said former ABC News Chairman David Westin, who is now a morning anchor for Bloomberg Television. “There are fewer of these instances than you might think.”
Although Kelly makes around $10 million a year at Fox News Channel and stands to earn more if she stays, her desire to test the waters is understandable. She is the first breakout anchor talent in recent years, no easy feat with the TV news audience more fragmented than ever. At 45, she is younger than most other anchors on broadcast networks and cable news and probably has a long career ahead.
“It’s always a very tempting situation for a talent because they never know when the stars are going to align in this way again for them where they have the perceived leverage,” said Jonathan Klein, a veteran TV news executive who ran CNN from 2004 to 2010.
Even with lower ratings and shrinking ad revenue, networks still pay handsomely to retain the stars they develop.
Consider Matt Lauer, who was a local TV journeyman before he joined NBC’s “Today” as a fill-in newsreader in the early 1990s. He was groomed to become the morning show’s co-anchor, and over time his popularity grew. During most of the 20 years he’s led the show, “Today” has been No. 1 in the ratings among viewers 25 to 54 — the demographic advertisers seek to reach with news programming.
NBC’s audience research has found that many viewers would not watch the morning program without Lauer at the anchor desk. As a result, he earns more than $20 million a year on a program that generates around $450 million in annual ad revenue.
Fox News Channel has similarly nurtured Kelly, who joined the cable news network in 2004 with just one year of experience in local TV after a career as a corporate litigator. She honed her skills as a Washington-based correspondent and then as a daytime news anchor. In 2013, she was promoted to a prime-time slot with “The Kelly File,” which is now the second-most-watched hour in cable news behind her lead-in, “The O’Reilly Factor,” averaging 2.5 million viewers a night.
Kelly’s value to Fox News Channel goes beyond the ratings used to sell advertising. She is part of a prime-time lineup that draws a fiercely loyal audience. Fox News Channel has rallied its devoted viewers’ support when it negotiates carriage fee increases from cable and satellite operators. The channel gets an average of $1.85 per subscriber each month from video providers, second only to ESPN.
As a proven fixture on the channel, Kelly could command up to $20 million a year in a new deal from Fox News, TV news executives and agents believe. A spokesperson for Creative Artists Agency, which represents Kelly, declined to comment.
Privately, executives at every rival TV news organization say they admire Kelly’s skills as a feisty, live TV interviewer and would be happy to have her on their roster. But competitors who pursue Kelly also have to consider whether her popularity at Fox News — which many of its viewers look to as a counterbalance to a liberal-leaning or “mainstream” media — is transferable to another network.
“I don’t know who wouldn’t want her,” Klein said. “It’s just a matter of what to do with her and at what price. I think it’s tougher for the broadcast networks because they just don’t have the cash to spend.” Klein’s former employer CNN has also moved away from high-priced talent deals.
Long gone are the days when legendary TV executive Roone Arledge was building up ABC’s talent roster in the 1980s and driving up salaries. He brought over David Brinkley, who had left NBC, and nabbed Diane Sawyer from CBS, helping to boost ratings and raising the news division from its also-ran status. Arledge also made his competitors pay dearly to keep other big names that he pursued.
Broadcast networks curbed their free-spending ways in the 1990s when cable started seriously eating away at their share of the audience. By the end of that decade, the news divisions of ABC, CBS and NBC were competing for audience with three 24-hour cable news channels and watched their ratings diminish. The industry has also seen the Internet pull away viewers.
Heated battles for big names still occur. But it’s difficult for anchors to make a successful transition in a crowded TV landscape.
Multiple networks courted Bryant Gumbel before he left NBC’s “Today” after a successful 15-year run. He joined CBS, but never achieved the same level of success in prime time or the morning. He’s since left network news behind and retreated to his HBO program “Real Sports.”
Katie Couric, arguably the most popular morning show personality ever during her tenure on “Today,” could not take “CBS Evening News” out of third place in the ratings. She was paid a reported $15 million a year to take over the broadcast in 2006 and left five years later. Her syndicated daytime talk show that followed, which paid her $10 million a year, lasted only two seasons.
Keith Olbermann was the top-rated anchor on MSNBC when he left after a dispute with management in 2011. He had built a passionate fan base for his political commentaries, but it wasn’t large enough to sustain his move to a fledgling and ultimately short-lived cable channel called Current.
Although big talent moves can make headlines and generate industry chatter, viewers don’t always follow an anchor to another outlet. (Conversely, Lester Holt’s seamless replacement of Brian Williams on “NBC Nightly News” with no decline in ratings indicates that many viewers may stick with a network even if the anchor changes.)
“Executives and talent often underestimate how much viewers have to think about during the course of their day other than when your show is on,” Klein said. “More than ever today it’s easy to disappear off their radar when you’re not in the place they’ve come to expect you in. So as long as you continue to be given opportunity at the place where you have become well-known, it makes more sense to stay.”
But Kelly could simply want to try something different, as evidenced by her broadcast special, which offered celebrity chats instead of the hard-charging, issue-driven interviews she does on “The Kelly File.” She told the L.A. Times in a recent interview that she loves her current job, but money won’t be the only factor in deciding her future. If that is the case, more opportunities outside of Fox News will be open to her. But that’s a big “if.”
Said Klein, “I don’t think that she hired CAA in order to make less money.”
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