Kelly’s offensive remarks about blackface Halloween costumes on Tuesday have raised more questions about her future at NBC. Spokespeople for NBC News declined to comment, and most staffers at the news division remain in the dark.
Tuesday’s controversy made national news and stoked disappointment and resentment within NBC, according to multiple sources at the network.
Kelly started her show on Wednesday by apologizing for comments made the previous day. Her audience gave her a standing ovation, but disappointment inside NBC News runs deep and isn’t likely to fade anytime soon.
NBC News chair Andy Lack condemned her racially insensitive comments during a town hall meeting with staffers on Wednesday morning. (The meeting was scheduled well before the controversy ensued.)
Lack spearheaded Kelly’s hiring and championed her 9 a.m. show. But this week his news division has covered the Kelly controversy on multiple programs. Instead of promoting the “Today” show as a happy family, NBC has aired the family’s fight — giving time to Al Roker and others who strongly criticized Kelly’s comments.
Tuesday’s blackface talk — featuring an all-white panel of guests — was a major misstep. But the Kelly rancor is about more than one segment.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday evening that Kelly and Lack “discussed a possible winding-down of her portion of the ‘Today’ show by the end of the year,” meaning the conversations pre-dated this week’s controversy.
Kelly has many critics and rivals within the famed news division — people who say she never should have been hired from Fox News, certainly not for such a huge salary, and certainly not for a morning show like “Megyn Kelly Today.”
These NBC staffers routinely call Kelly’s show a “disaster” and other disparaging terms.
Most of the anger isn’t directed at her, exactly, but at the management of NBC News — the men who hired her away from Fox in January 2017.
“We’re lucky to have her,” Lack said on the day her new deal was announced.
At the time, some other TV executives agreed. After all, there had been a bidding war for Kelly when it became clear that she wanted to leave Fox.
Lack called her an “exceptional journalist and news anchor.”
But Kelly was best known for fiery segments on Fox’s staunchly conservative prime time schedule. There was widespread concern that she was being miscast at NBC.
The network said she would have two main jobs: A 9 a.m. talk show and a Sunday night newsmagazine. Her reported salary of $23 million a year for three years, totaling $69 million, became a bit of a scandal inside NBC, even before she started on the air.
Kelly’s morning show premiered in September of 2017. Television critics found a lot to criticize. And Kelly had some early stumbles, like an awkward exchange with Jane Fonda that made headlines for a long time afterward.
Some of the controversies stoked curiosity about her new show, but mostly it just caused embarrassment and snickering about how long she would last at NBC. Most importantly, the 9 a.m. show did not meet ratings expectations.
As the Wall Street Journal put it in a headline earlier this year, “NBC bet $69 million on Megyn Kelly — then viewers vanished.”
Kelly’s rivals noted that the earlier iteration of the 9 a.m. hour was more profitable back when Roker and Tamron Hall were the hosts. That’s partly because they were paid a lot less.
Some people in the TV business said Kelly was given bad career advice. Others said NBC was unrealistic about expectations for her show. And still others said Kelly’s talent was not easily transferable from Fox to other networks.
NBC introduced Kelly’s Sunday newsmagazine, but the program didn’t last long. As predicted, it suffered in the ratings versus long-running competitors like “60 Minutes,” and it was hobbled by scheduling issues.
On the air, Kelly’s morning show has notched some wins — her show has been full of fascinating conversations and candid interviews. But it is still a ratings laggard. And the blackface controversy reinforces the perception — to the public at large — that Kelly is a Fox News personality, not a member of the “Today” show family.
During the offending segment on Tuesday, Kelly said it was OK when she was growing up for white people to dress up as black characters, and she spoke out against a controversy that erupted last year over a reality star who portrayed Diana Ross.
“But what is racist?” Kelly asked. “Because you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”
Later in the day, Kelly said sorry to her colleagues in an email: “Today is one of those days where listening carefully to other points of view, including from friends and colleagues, is leading me to rethink my own views.”
On Tuesday evening, “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” covered the Kelly story when few other networks paid it much attention. Roker, Melvin and other members of the “Today” show cast had a remarkably candid conversation about the controversy during the 7 a.m. hour of the show on Wednesday.
The situation demonstrates the continuing unease about and disarray within NBC News over Kelly, whose hire and installation in the network’s morning hours was controversial.
Roker said “she owes a bigger apology to folks of color across the country.”
His blunt words expressed a point of view shared by many within the news organization.
“Today” colleague Craig Melvin also called out Kelly’s comments for being “stupid” and “indefensible.” He pointed out that this controversy is an opportunity to inform people — but said most people already knew how offensive blackface is.