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Megyn Kelly officially exits NBC News

In this Oct. 18, 2018 photo released by NBC, host Megyn Kelly appears on her show “Megyn Kelly Today
Megyn Kelly appears on her show “Megyn Kelly Today,” which NBC canceled after she defended the use of blackface costumes on Halloween.
(Nathan Congleton / Associated Press)

Megyn Kelly’s turbulent two-year run at NBC News is over as both sides reached an agreement Friday night on her exit from the network.

Terms of her departure were not disclosed, but people familiar with the negotiations said the former morning show host is leaving with the money she was owed on her contract, which is said to be about $30 million. Kelly is free to work for an NBC competitor.

“The parties have resolved their differences, and Megyn Kelly is no longer an employee of NBC,” a representative of NBC said.

The split follows 2½ months of negotiations. The exit talks commenced after the TV news personality caused a furor with remarks she made on her now canceled show “Megyn Kelly Today,” in which she defended the use of blackface as a Halloween costume.

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Kelly apologized for her remarks, which were condemned online and on the air by NBC News colleagues. But Oct. 24 was her final day on air as the host of the 9 a.m. hour of the “Today” franchise that carried her name.

“Today” regulars, Al Roker, Craig Melvin, Dylan Dreyer and Sheinelle Jones have taken over the program’s third hour, which has seen its audience grow since Kelly’s departure.

Kelly’s relationship with the network had deteriorated in recent months as “Megyn Kelly Today” lost viewers and brought negative coverage and reviews. The program had difficulty attracting big-name celebrity guests after Kelly made actress Jane Fonda uncomfortable with a question about her plastic surgery during her second day.

NBC News made a big bet on Kelly becoming its next signature star. The division poached her from Fox News in January 2017 with an annual salary reportedly in excess of $20 million a year.

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The news division also took the extraordinary step of putting Kelly’s name in the title of her hour of the “Today” franchise. That has happened only one time in the program’s 67-year history, when it was called “The Dave Garroway Today Show” in 1960. Garroway was the program’s first host and one of television’s earliest superstars.

Kelly stumbled right out of the box for NBC when she tried a Sunday night prime-time magazine in the summer of 2017 that was intended to rival CBS’ vaunted “60 Minutes.”

The program failed to draw audiences and generated controversy as well when it used breezy promos and social media posts to promote a segment on Alex Jones, the right-wing internet provocateur who espoused the false notion that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut was a hoax created to stir sentiment for stronger gun laws.

Kelly gained prominence at Fox News channel, where polarizing opinions and provocative views are a strong draw for audiences. But the conflict-driven conversation she specialized in was at odds with the feel-good atmosphere of morning television.

Kelly tried to show a softer side on “Megyn Kelly Today,” by featuring human interest stories and presenting segments on food, consumer advice and health. When she was promoting her new program she proclaimed she was “done with politics,” even though that was what brought her to prominence at Fox News.

Despite her attempts to adjust her image, the host appeared to be most engaged when discussing provocative news topics on “Megyn Kelly Today,” especially the #MeToo movement. While she earned kudos for providing a platform for harassment victims, she began to rankle “Today” colleagues when she aggressively pursued segments on the sexual misconduct allegations against fired “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer and the news division’s elder statesman Tom Brokaw.

But many in the TV news industry believe Kelly was a bad fit with “Today” from the start. Her high-profile flameout will be added to the litany of snafus NBC News has experienced over the last 15 months, which include the firing of Lauer and its public dispute with journalist Ronan Farrow over the decision not to run his reporting on the sexual harassment and assault allegations made against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

While the incidents have generated headlines and speculation about the leadership at NBC News, they have had no discernible effect on the business side of the division.

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Even with the big payout to Kelly, NBC News had a strong year financially in 2018 thanks largely to the continued audience growth of its cable channel MSNBC. The signature NBC News broadcast properties — “Today,” “NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt” and “Meet the Press,” — are all leaders in the 25-to-54 age group that advertisers covet.

“Today” accounts for $500 million annually in advertising revenue for NBC and was the most-watched morning program during the November sweeps rating period, with an average of 4.21 million viewers, topping ABC’s “Good Morning America (4.18 million).

NBC News Chairman Andy Lack championed Kelly’s hiring because she was the first big star to emerge in TV news in recent years, a status achieved largely because of her willingness to spar with President Trump at the first debate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015. But the move also had strong support in the executive suite at NBC parent Comcast Corp.

Kelly had become the glamorous favorite in the mainstream press, which usually expresses disdain for the lineup of conservative Fox News personalities. Part of NBC’s motivation for hiring her was that it could weaken Fox News and keep her away from competitors such as CNN or ABC, which had engaged in discussions with her.

But Fox News did not miss Kelly when she left for NBC News. The channel remains a dominant ratings leader in cable news. Any interest CNN or ABC had in hiring Kelly waned before NBC became serious about pursuing her when she reached the end of her contract at Fox News.

While many news industry observers are questioning Lack’s ability to hold onto his job after Kelly’s high-profile flop, there is no discussion about any imminent change in leadership at NBC News. Lack, 71, has at least two more years remaining on his contract with the network.

After failing to connect with NBC’s audience, Kelly is not likely to land on another network anytime soon. She has been under contract at NBC and has not been on the market until the deal made Friday. But Fox News has already dampened speculation that she could return.

One veteran news executive who works for an NBC rival and spoke on the condition of anonymity speculated she could find opportunity at Sinclair Broadcast Group, the TV station owner that runs conservative-leaning commentary on its local outlets. But she would likely have to do it for the love of being on TV as the Maryland-based company is notoriously parsimonious.

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stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio


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