If NBC News was looking to get attention for "Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly," it has succeeded, thanks to the controversy over the host's interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
But it's not the kind of attention it was counting on. NBC News is expending a lot of energy to protect Kelly, whom it poached from Fox News and is paying $17 million a year to make its next big star.
The broadcast network's news division now finds itself in a no-win situation. NBC faces pressure to scrap the interview and dampen a widening public relations fiasco. But doing so would also expose the network to criticism that it was capitulating to outside pressure.
On Thursday, lawyers for the families of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting threatened to sue NBC, saying it was furthering their suffering by airing Jones' false statements. Jones has called the shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 people — including 20 children — a hoax to promote tougher gun control laws.
The legal threat follows pleas from the families not to run the piece.
"Airing Ms. Kelly's interview implicitly endorses the notion that Mr. Jones' lies are actually 'claims' that are worthy of serious debate; and in doing so it exponentially enhances the suffering and distress of our clients," said a letter from Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, a law firm representing the Sandy Hook families. The letter was sent to NBC News Chairman Andy Lack and other executives at the network.
While there was no comment on the letter, the network appears to be responding to local pressure elsewhere. Late Friday, NBC-owned Connecticut TV station WVIT, which serves the Newtown area, told staffers it will not air "Sunday Night."
In an employee memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times, station general manager Susan Tully said the program is being preempted out of sensitivity to the families and employees at the station who apparently complained.
"Over the last few days, we have listened intently to Sandy Hook parents, our viewers and importantly, to you," Tully said in the memo. "We have considered the deep emotions from the wounds of that day that have yet to heal."
While affiliates occasionally choose to not air a network program, it's rare for a network-owned station to opt out.
Jones threatened to leak a tape of the actual interview on his Infowars website, but it never materialized. Instead, he played audio of phone calls with Kelly about the interview, presenting them on his website with his own commentary.
Journalists commonly have to cajole subjects to talk, but Jones tried to discredit Kelly by revealing how she used flattery to convince him to cooperate with her, creating the unfortunate optics of her being dragged through the mud by a right-wing Internet provocateur.
"I'm not looking to portray you as some boogie man or do any sort of a gotcha moment," Kelly is heard saying to Jones on the call. "I just want to talk about you. I want people to get to know you. And the craziest thing of all would be if some of the people who have this insane version of you in their heads walk away saying, 'You know what? I see, like, the dad in him. I see the guy who loves those kids and who is more complex than I have been led to believe.' "
It's unusual for a big-name talent to get deeply involved with the booking of an interview subject, unless it's a major news maker who can draw big ratings. Jones is not considered a blockbuster "get" who will draw a huge audience. On-air TV news stars typically pick up the phone to woo major newsmakers, not fringe characters such as Jones.
Although Kelly insisted to Jones that she would not do a "gotcha hit piece" on him, the consensus in the TV news business is that NBC has to present a portrait that is highly critical of Jones to stem further damage to its brand — and its new star.
"Sunday Night" will feature family members of Sandy Hook shooting victims responding to Jones' hoax remarks, according to a person familiar with the production of the program who is not authorized to comment. "The interview is part of a larger piece about [Jones]. It's not the only part," the person said.
NBC News has stood by Kelly and its decision to air the interview and said the actions of Jones were an attempt to derail the piece.
"Despite Alex Jones' efforts to distract from and ultimately prevent the airing of our report, we remain committed to giving viewers context and insight into a controversial and polarizing figure, how he relates to the president of the United States and influences others, and to getting this serious story right," according to a statement.
The Jones broadcast remains a controversial issue within the network and the broadcast industry.
"The fact is that he is an unalloyed racist," NBC News elder statesman Tom Brokaw said Thursday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Jones "is out there pulling the pin on the grenade every day and he has 6 million viewers who are paying attention to him. And the parents in Newtown are hearing from his followers all the time. [The followers] buy into what he is saying, which is patently not true."
Competitors believe NBC created the conflagration with a tightly edited 90-second teaser for the interview that aired on "Sunday Night" this past Sunday in which Kelly appeared to be following up on inflammatory answers from Jones with the typical cool she displays on-camera.
Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, said promoting the interview with anything short of an acknowledgment that Jones' comments about Sandy Hook were outrageous was a mistake.
"You need to hold up a picture of the dead kids at Sandy Hook and say 'How dare you?'" Zucker said. "I think they've done themselves no favor in the way they have marketed this and that's been the big mistake."
5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with information about a local NBC affiliate in Newton that will not air "Sunday Night."
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated to include additional reaction.
7:42 a.m: This article has been updated with details of Alex Jones' recordings of Megyn Kelly and a statement from NBC.