How Megyn Kelly Could Become the Most Powerful Woman in TV News

Despite recent primetime special stumble, Fox News star could flee the network once her current deal expires in mid-2017

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Last year Megyn Kelly became a household name. The rest of this year will determine whether she becomes the most powerful woman in TV news.

The Fox News anchor made headlines after a presidential debate by grilling GOP candidate Donald Trump over his comments about women. More recently, her primetime special on the Fox broadcast network, featuring a rematch with Trump, was dismissed by some critics as trite and unrevealing. Ratings were underwhelming. But the special was still broadcast TV and it primed Kelly for a bigger role, either at Fox News or somewhere else.

With her contract at the cable network up in mid-2017, the question remains whether she can keep raising her profile.  And that will likely depend on how she covers the remainder of one of the most turbulent election seasons in U.S. history.

“More people today know that Megyn Kelly has only a year left on her contract with Fox News than knew who Megyn Kelly was at this time last year,” said Robert Thompson, a TV historian and professor at Syracuse University. “Her recognition numbers have gone up considerably.”

That puts considerable pressure on Fox News brass, who will be facing off against Kelly very soon at the bargaining table and needs to keep her from fleeing to a rival.

“She is a valuable commodity to that network,” Thompson said.

What happens next is key.

Fox has left open the door for future Kelly interview specials, which would position her as the next Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer.

“We think Megyn is a huge star and has huge potential in this form of television,” Fox boss Gary Newman said at Fox’s upfront schedule presentation earlier this month.

He added, “It’s certainly something we’re very interested in, as I believe Megyn and Fox News are as well.”

But Fox and Kelly will need to learn some lessons before they tackle more primetime specials.

Many industry insiders feel that Kelly took a toned-down approach to the Fox broadcast special so that Trump would eventually agree to go on her regular Fox News show, “The Kelly File,” where a harsher, more combative tone is often at play.

“When you watch that special, there was a major element of ‘The Kelly File’ that didn’t come out,” Thompson said. The special was produced by Walters’ longtime producer Bill Geddie, as opposed ‘The Kelly File” producers who revel in the fast-paced, aggressive style of cable news.

“In her defense, some of the questions that she asked and got a lot of grief for because they were softballs or whatever, a lot of them were questions that Barbara Walters very well could of asked in her career,” Thompson said.

She also may have tried to do too much. “Megyn Kelly Presents” featured interviews with not just Trump but also TV star Laverne Cox, O.J. Simpson lawyer Robert Shapiro and actor Michael Douglas.

“Clearly, now she has something to prove,” Thompson said of Kelly. “The next one might look a little different. She might not try to jam four into one hour.”

But the most important factor in what happens next for Kelly is unpredictable. That factor is the news.

Kelly made her reputation anchoring a newscast, and then broke out as a star when she asked a presidential candidate a tough question during a national debate. That candidate – Trump – now looks like the presumptive Republican nominee.

Kelly has more than five months to make sure that when Americans think of journalists who cover the campaign, they think of her. And only her.

That will make her initial, largely tepid foray into Barbara Walters-style chats a distant memory, said Mediate columnist Joe Concha.

“Despite almost all the post-mortems being overwhelming negative,” Concha said, “the attention only brings her more out of the cable news bubble and into mainstream consciousness.”