Fox News Channel star Megyn Kelly is bright, beautiful and blunt when she needs to be. Just ask Karl Rove.
Her willingness to take on all-comers, even conservative hero Rove — as she famously did on election night last November — is one reason Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes has promoted Kelly to a plum prime-time perch. On Monday, the network’s 17th anniversary, “The Kelly File” premieres between the opinion-heavy programs of the network’s conservative firebrands Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
FOR THE RECORD:
Megyn Kelly: An article in the Oct. 7 Calendar section about new Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly said MSNBC attracts twice the number of viewers ages 25 to 54 in prime-time as Fox News, according to Nielsen. In fact, Fox News’ prime-time audience includes a substantially higher number of viewers in that age demographic than either MSNBC or CNN. —
But there’s one thing Kelly insists she won’t be: “I’m not going to be the female Bill.”
Kelly doesn’t intend the show to be a megaphone for her opinions, even though she’s got plenty. Instead, the anchorwoman, in a phone interview last week, said she wants to produce a fast-paced, razor-sharp recap of the news of the day.
She plans to keep her own politics out of it.
“I’m a news anchor, I’m not an ideologue,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to be an opinion anchor.”
For that reason, the 42-year-old former trial lawyer from the true-blue state of New York doesn’t quite fit the Fox News mold. “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart once called Kelly his “favorite person over there” at Fox News.
Republicans have congratulated her for revealing conservative stripes, while some on the left believe she might be a closet liberal. To both camps, “I always say to them: You assume too much,” she said. “Nobody really knows my true feelings on a lot of issues.”
This much is certain: Kelly pledges her allegiance to Ailes, who is embarking on a mid-course adjustment to Fox News’ hugely successful formula.
Last year, the network generated $1.9 billion in revenue, according to consulting firm SNL Kagan. Its annual profit topped $1 billion. This year, it’s drawn an average of 1.8 million nightly prime-time viewers, nearly three times more than MSNBC or CNN, according to Nielsen.
But for all its success, Fox News is grappling with an age issue. The median age of its audience is over 65, which is less appealing to advertisers. Although Fox News has a commanding lead among the important demographic of viewers aged 25 to 54, it wants to make a move now to protect its advantage.
The challenge is to attract younger viewers without alienating older O’Reilly and Hannity viewers.
“The Kelly File” represents only the fifth prime-time change that Ailes has made in Fox News’ history. During that same period, his competitors CNN and MSNBC have made more than 70 shifts in a futile effort to catch the No. 1 cable news network.
“This is the biggest prime-time shake-up ever at Fox News,” said Eric Boehlert, senior fellow for the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America. “But the question is: Will this shift change the political tone of Fox News? Megyn Kelly is obviously more pragmatic than Sean Hannity. Is she going to be the centrist prime-time host? Moderation is not what drives Fox programming.”
“Megyn is the whole package,” said Bill Shine, Fox News executive vice president of programming. “She is very strong and nice — and unpredictable. If people try to cross her or try to get some B.S. past her, she will call them out. It doesn’t matter if they are on the left or on the right.”
Republican strategist Rove discovered that on election night when he attempted to put the brakes on early calls that President Obama was cruising toward victory. Not enough votes had been counted in key Republican precincts, he said, votes that could put Mitt Romney ahead.
“Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is it real?” Kelly asked Rove before a record audience of nearly 12 million people watching Fox News.
An hour later, the atmosphere grew tense as the Ohio returns were rolling in. Fox News declared Obama the winner of the election. Again, Rove protested.
“Well, that’s awkward,” Kelly said.
To settle the dispute came the walk watched round the world. With microphone in hand and cameras trained on her every step, Kelly made her way to the “Decision Desk” data room for a live interview with vote-count analysts. The Fox team had practiced the walk, thinking they might have to use it to fill time if the race was too close to call, but they didn’t expect to use it to stifle an on-air commentator.
It was an electric TV moment.
“That was a real question, it wasn’t me trying to needle Karl,” Kelly said. “It was something I thought our Republican viewers at home would want to know: Is this real, or are you just giving me a soothing balm? And in another hour or so the hammer is going to come down?”
Regular Fox News viewers are well-acquainted with Kelly. She has hosted “America Live,” which airs late weekday mornings on the West Coast, for three and a half years. In that time, Kelly boosted the show’s ratings (the program averages 1.4 million viewers an episode) and expanded the audience among viewers ages 25-54, the group that advertisers pay the most to reach.
“We looked at Megyn, and what she was able to do in her afternoon show and we wanted to move that show to prime time,” Shine said. “This is a way to change the pace up a little and, perhaps, make it a little better.”
Kelly returns to television after a nearly three-month maternity leave for the birth of her third child. Last week, on her first day back at work, she shed tears after being separated from her infant son. So the following day, Kelly showed up at Fox News’ Midtown Manhattan studios with 9-week-old Thatcher and his baby sitter in tow.
Being a working woman, a wife and a mother of three young children has influenced her views. Last week, during a six-minute chat with O’Reilly on Fox News to promote “The Kelly File,” the Mama Bear anchorwoman said as much.
O’Reilly and Kelly were discussing a story that became a cable news sensation: a young family in a Range Rover who were pursued by a crowd of angry bikers. “Who wouldn’t just floor it and drive away?” Kelly asked, seemingly siding with the father, who in his panic ran over a motorcyclist. And to the bikers, she said: “They were very lucky that nothing happened to that 2-year-old inside that car.”
Kelly joined Fox News in 2004, after working as a part-time freelance reporter for the ABC station affiliate in Washington, D.C., while still juggling work as a trial lawyer. The station’s management was negotiating to bring Kelly on full time with a modest salary “when Fox News came out of nowhere and offered to pay her two or three times our offer,” said Bill Lord, general manager of that station, WJLA-TV Channel 7.
“You could see that she had the potential to skyrocket to the top,” Lord said. “She had a unique ability to talk to people and share information. People trusted her and so they opened up. She worked that to her advantage.”
Kelly, who is married to an author, was raised in upstate New York, near Syracuse and Albany. Her father was a college professor; her mother was a nurse. Before her stint at WJLA, Kelly worked nearly a decade as a lawyer, most of that at the prestigious Jones Day firm.
But the work became too much of a grind. “Being a trial lawyer sounds like glamorous work, but most of your time is spent pushing paper and arguing,” Kelly said.
“She was a very effective lawyer with good instincts,” said Tom McNulty, an attorney with Jones Day in Chicago who worked with her for several years. “She was a terrific litigator: good on her feet, articulate and poised.”
Did Kelly display any political leanings back then? When asked, McNulty just chuckled.
“I never had a sense of her politics until she went to Fox News,” said McNulty.
Media analyst Boehlert said he’s not sure whether Kelly’s arrival in prime time will change the network’s tenor. The shift moves Greta van Susteren three hours earlier and bumps Hannity out of the marquee 6 p.m. Pacific / 9 p.m. Eastern slot to make room for Kelly.
“She’s done very well tweaking the Fox News narrative, and that has served her well,” he said. “But Fox knows it needs to create passion and excitement among their core viewers, that’s the engine that drives the network — the phony outrage about anything that Obama does.”
Kelly said she’s no phony.
“People know that they are going to get the real me when I go out there,” she said. “If somebody comes on [the show] and is a moron, I’m going to call them out.
“But my goal,” Kelly added, “is to ask a provocative question. I’m just a soulless lawyer at heart who likes to ask pointed questions of both sides to get the best answer.”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that MSNBC attracts twice the number of viewers ages 25 to 54 in prime-time as Fox News, according to Nielsen. In fact, Fox News’ prime-time audience contains a substantially higher number of viewers in that age demographic than does its competitors MSNBC and CNN.
‘The O’Reilly Factor’
Where: Fox News Channel
When: 5 and 8 p.m. weekdays
‘The Kelly File’
Where: Fox News Channel
When: 6 and 9 p.m. weekdays
Where: Fox News Channel
When: 7 and 10 p.m. Weekdays