Why Has Megyn Kelly’s ‘Today’ Debut Been So Messy?

Former Fox News star has dismissed criticism

Megyn Kelly on her new 'Today' show set
Megyn Kelly on her new 'Today' show set

“Megyn Kelly Today” has gotten plenty of attention in its first week, but much of it has been bad.

Debra Messing said she was “dismayed” by her “Kelly” appearance, in which the host asked an audience member if he “became” gay after watching “Will & Grace.” Jane Fonda bristled at Kelly’s question about plastic surgery. On Thursday, a cameraman wandered into the frame and said a word you aren’t supposed to say on TV.

Is the former Fox News host making a bumpy transition from the rough-and-tumble world of cable news to the softer milieu of broadcast mornings? Or is she intentionally trying to drum up publicity?

“Any and all press can harness more attention, especially when it comes to a new show trying to make a name for itself and make waves,” Branding Los Angeles marketing director Ben Behrooz told TheWrap. “In Megyn Kelly‘s case, she’s asking questions to make the guests never come back on the show, but also make the news.”

She ended her first week by making a point of brushing off the media critiques.

“I just want to take a moment to thank all of you so much for watching this week,” she said as she signed off the Friday broadcast. “It’s been very exciting. It has been educational.” She then made a joke: “I’ve just been so delighted at the media response, which is really — no,” she said. “But the viewer response has been awesome, and I am so grateful to have all of you giving us a chance.”

Kelly was a star at Fox News before moving to the third hour of NBC’s “Today,” lured in part by a reported $15- million-plus paycheck. She was previously best known as host of “The Kelly File,” and for her feud with Donald Trump after she moderated a 2015 Republican presidential primary debate and questioned whether he had the right temperament to run the country.

Kelly, whose “Today” premiere narrowly topped “Live With Kelly and Ryan” in ratings, told audiences Monday that she is “kind of done with politics for now.” This suggests that she hopes to appeal to a wider swath of viewers.

“Fox does the best it can, particularly in its opinion shows, to drum empathy out of people who are its stars,” David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR and author of the book “Murdoch’s World,” told TheWrap. “When it’s useful, they convey concern for people, but by and large, that’s not the strong point for Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, ‘Fox & Friends.’ Yet that is the quality that most of the hosts on morning shows seek to present — the ability to listen, to respond, to be concerned.”

Behrooz sees it a different way, pointing out that Kelly may eventually be perceived as straying from her roots. “She is definitely using scandal to sell, and it’s interesting to see her transition from political journalist to making a name for herself any way she can — without getting her show canceled,” he said.

“Megyn Kelly Today” producer Jackie Levin told TheWrap prior to the show’s premiere that Kelly is happy to fit in and become part of the “Today” show “family.”

“It’s nothing we want to fight,” Levin said. “This is a legacy brand.”

Saul Austerlitz, pop culture writer and author of the book “Sitcom,” believes that it may take Kelly time to prove to viewers that they can expect to see a different side to her in the new venture.

“I think Kelly wants to erase memories of her Fox-fueled divisiveness, and most TV watchers not already enamored of her are skeptical, to say the least,” Austerlitz told TheWrap.

Folkenflik doubts that Kelly was trying to be confrontational with Fonda. Indeed, the topic of cosmetic surgery is one that the Oscar-winning actress has discussed in previous interviews.

So was the Fonda flap simply a result of Kelly misreading how her guest would react to a personal topic? Folkenflik suggests so, but he also points out that the Kelly of old may have been quick to knock Fonda and fellow guest Robert Redford for their liberal ideals.

“In terms of her ability to connect with high-profile stars who came on her couch in what’s supposed to be the week in which she’s introducing herself, this was not a graceful landing for that first week,” he said. “NBC is trying in various ways to show that she is somebody who will define herself outside of the political subject that typified her Fox News program night after night, and that she’s going to be a welcome presence, and I think she’s got more work to get there.”