NBC hopes the ratings will rise and shine on 'Megyn Kelly Today'

Megyn Kelly is shown shaking hands and hugging regular folks in the promotional spots for her new NBC morning show that debuts Monday. She looks like a candidate running for office, and in a way, she is.

Kelly was part of a politically charged atmosphere during her 12 years at Fox News, surrounded by conservative commentators on the network’s prime-time schedule. By moving across the street to NBC, she wants to leave behind the often bitter partisan debate that is driving cable news ratings up to record levels in the age of President Trump.

But she will have to convince viewers that she can make the transformation from steely, sharp-elbowed, provocative anchor to the kind of warm, familiar companion that viewers want in a morning TV host. NBC is counting on it after poaching Kelly from Fox for $18 million a year and rebuilding the third hour of its franchise morning program “Today” around her. The 9 a.m. hour is being renamed “Megyn Kelly Today.”

The pressure on Kelly to succeed is heightened by the lackluster ratings performance of her prime-time magazine program “Sunday Night,” which is scheduled to return sometime next year.

But Kelly isn’t worried.

“I have a nice long runway,” said Kelly, 46, in an interview from her fifth-floor office at NBC’s New York headquarters that overlooks Rockefeller Plaza. “No one is expecting me to fly the plane perfectly and at 30,000 feet as soon as they turn the engine on. That takes some of the pressure off and allows me and my team to focus on content.”

Kelly could have stayed at Fox News, where she became a major star after 25 million people saw her take on President Trump during the first Republican primary debate in 2015. But while the exchange heightened her fame, it thrust her into the current polarizing environment and made her one of then-candidate Trump’s first targets on Twitter.

“Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it makes you happy,” Kelly said. “I’ve wanted to do something that was more inspirational.”

“Megyn Kelly Today” is going to air live in front of a studio audience each day. She will interview celebrity guests and not-so-famous people with uplifting stories, hoping to make viewers feel more “empowered” in their lives, she said. Segments on parenting, relationships, health, diet and finance will be part of the mix.

The program will also take a news topic of the day and discuss it more in depth. Not every story will involve Trump.

“That’s a mistake too many broadcasters are making right now,” Kelly said. “They make everything all about him. Those who support him and those who don’t -- I’ve had it up to here with that.”

Page Hurwitz, a veteran talk show producer who worked with Rosie O’Donnell, believes NBC will have to find the right balance between news and lighter fare for Kelly.

“We haven’t seen anyone whose background is exclusively journalism make a real go of it in daytime talk,” Hurwitz said. “It seems like the audience wants to be entertained rather than strictly informed. But everyone knows she’s coming from news so that’s really her lane.”

Still, NBC’s commitment to Kelly is apparent in the show’s title, which combines her name with the morning franchise. She is even getting a version of the signature “Today” sunrise as part of the logo for her stand-alone hour.

Throughout the summer, NBC has worked at warming up Kelly’s hard-edged news image beyond the promotional campaign. “Today” ran a segment that followed her family on a camping trip. The show has also offered up daily tidbits about her personality such as her go-to karaoke song (Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain), No. 1 pet peeve (making weekend plans before noon on a weekend) and favorite ice cream flavor (campfire s’mores). During a guest spot this week on “Ellen,” she danced in the audience while wearing an inflatable sumo suit.

Jackie Levin, a veteran “Today” producer who is overseeing Kelly’s hour, believes the host has the authenticity the morning audience demands.

“She is a real person,” said Levin, who did not know Kelly before being named as producer of the show. “She is a total natural at this. She is quick on her feet and really funny. I just hope people give her a fair shake.”

She should find her new time period more hospitable than prime-time because the “Today” 7 to 9 a.m. anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie will be leading into her hour and providing promotion throughout the morning.

While “Today” has been losing viewers to cable news networks this year, it’s still the top-rated morning program in the 25-to-54 age group advertisers covet and is nipping at the heels of ABC’s “Good Morning America” in viewers overall.

The 9 a.m. hour “Today” had an average audience of 2.7 million viewers during the 2016-17 TV season with Al Roker, Dylan Dreyer and Sheinelle Jones as co-hosts, down 12% from the prior season. They will still be seen on the 7 to 9 a.m. edition of the program. In most markets, “the third hour” as it’s called, faces Disney/ABC’s syndicated program “Live! With Kelly and Ryan,” hosted by Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest, which has 3.2 million viewers and is down 20%.

Standard Media Index puts 2017 ad spending on NBC’s 9 a.m. hour at $53.8 million through August, down 2.5% from a year earlier.

“The question is whether Megyn Kelly will pull new viewers to the time slot and maybe she can,” Hurwitz said.

Another question is whether African American TV viewers, who make up 18% of the available audience in the 9 a.m. hour, will embrace Kelly.

Kelly’s appeal with that segment will be tested because she faced criticism by liberal media watchdog groups in 2016 over tussles she had on Fox News with leaders and supporters of the Black Lives Matter protests against police killings of African Americans.

“Our show was extremely fair and that’s why we got a guest like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who would not go on the rest of the channel,” she said. “What I stood up for when I was at Fox was keeping an open mind.”

Pepper Miller, a Chicago-based market research consultant, does not believe any negative feeling those viewers have towards Fox News will follow her to NBC.

“If Megyn Kelly can be a real authentic journalist who seeks the truth for the viewing audience she will be fine,” Miller said.

Kelly won’t steer from serious topics. Her first week will have a segment featuring four female black police chiefs from North Carolina discussing race relations and law enforcement.

“To this day some of these women will go into a department store and be followed because of the color of the skin,” said Kelly. “And we get into all of it.”

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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