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'Megyn Kelly Today' stumbles in its NBC debut, hurt by gaffes and weak ratings

NBC News executives had reason to feel like they got up on the wrong side of the bed after negative reviews and tepid ratings marred Megyn Kelly’s morning show debut.

The first week of “Megyn Kelly Today”— a high-profile attempt by NBC to fit the former Fox News anchor into a brand extension of its morning program “Today” — opened with 2.93 million viewers on Monday and dropped to 2.4 million viewers by Thursday, according to Nielsen. During the 2016-17 season, the 9 a.m. edition of “Today,” which Kelly replaced, averaged 2.8 million viewers each day.

While new daily programs take time to build an audience, the rocky start is a worrying sign for a network that is banking on Kelly to become a marquee talent for its valuable “Today” franchise and boost ratings in the morning.

TV critics were harsh about Kelly’s performance and the network’s efforts to transform her from a hard-edged, no-nonsense cable anchor into the host of a feel-good show that would steer clear of the nonstop drumbeat of politics and President Trump.

NBC would like to give the show time to develop, but the publicity blitz leading up to the launch made it tough for the $18-million-a-year star to avoid scrutiny and controversy associated with being a cable news provocateur.

Kelly took heat for jokingly asking an audience member who is a super fan of “Will & Grace” — the iconic NBC sitcom about a gay lawyer and his friends — whether “it was true you became a lawyer and you became gay because of Will.”

“Will & Grace” co-star Debra Messing later said on her Instagram page that she regretted her appearance with Kelly, which became a story that was reported widely.

On Wednesday, an interview with Jane Fonda became uncomfortable when Kelly pressed the 79-year-old actress to talk about her plastic surgery. Fonda, who has discussed the topic in past interviews, gave Kelly an icy look and diverted the conversation back to “Our Souls at Night,” the film she and Robert Redford were on to promote. Fonda’s tart response became an internet meme and generated stories with such headlines as “Megyn Kelly Is Striking Out With Celebrity Guests.”

Even technical glitches are getting attention, such as when a camera operator stepped into frame and uttered an expletive that was heard by the viewing audience.

Some TV news industry insiders were surprised that Kelly’s live program gave minimal attention to current news events given the host’s demonstrated skills as a journalist — she famously clashed with President Trump during the 2016 campaign. Her proclamation that she is “done with politics” risks putting the program out of step with the rest of the TV news environment that now thrives on discussing the Trump White House and the polarizing issues surrounding it. The host attempted to reel back that pronouncement later in the week, saying politics would be discussed on the program.

Lisa McRee, a former host of ABC’s “Good Morning America” currently on KTTV in Los Angeles, believes the awkward start is a result of NBC going overboard in trying to smooth out the elements that helped make her a breakout on-air talent at Fox.

“Rather than melting her down and recasting her, I think they should have left her for the most part who she is,” McRee said. “Let her do more serious news. Let her do crime stuff.”

McRee believed the most compelling segments in Kelly’s first week were her interviews of Lyle Menendez, his first since the airing of the “Law & Order” series that depicts the trial for the murder of his parents by him and his brother, Erik.

Kelly also appeared to be more in her comfort zone when she talked with attorney Christopher Darden and the father and sister of Ron Goldman about the impending prison release of O.J. Simpson. Simpson, who was acquitted on charges he murdered his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Goldman, will soon be out on parole after serving nine years for armed robbery.

“Megyn Kelly Today” executive producer Jackie Levin said she is happy with the show’s first week and that she has not read most of the barbs that have been written about it. But she acknowledged that Kelly is getting used to performing in front of a studio audience rather than behind an anchor desk in front of a technical crew.

“I think Megyn said the first day, ‘This is new; I’m nervous,’” Levin said. “Go back and watch the first week [for other hosts] and see if they weren’t nervous.”

While critics have been tough, Levin said that she is seeing a positive response from people in the studio audience and that Kelly needs to have time to settle into her new role.

I think it’s a natural evolution,” Levin said. “She’s having a ball out there.”

Kelly’s colleagues at “Today,” who have been subjected to tough press in the past, also urged patience for the new program.

“Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer told The Times that Kelly’s 9 a.m. hour is a magnet for attention and that the “hyper-ventilating” over her early performance will eventually pass.

“I think it’s a good show,” Lauer said in an interview at a New York party for “Princesses Wear Pants,” the children’s book by his co-anchor Savannah Guthrie. “Everybody has to relax and let it happen.”

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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