Given the timing of the cancellation of Megyn Kelly’s NBC show, just a few days after she defended blackface Halloween costumes on air, it will be easy for opponents of political correctness to rally against liberal media overreach, outrage culture and corporate censure. Just as easy, perhaps, as it should’ve been for NBC to see how ill-fated hiring Kelly was in the first place.
For $69 million (Dh253.04 million) over three years, the folks at 30 Rock believed they could remake a former Fox News firebrand in their image, moving her from night to morning, from right to centre, from hard news to soft. But Kelly’s blackface comments, which earned rebuke from colleagues and network chairman Andy Lack, were merely the last straw.
About a year ago, Kelly was something of a coveted figure, having emerged from the 2016 election in a strange and almost singular position. Nestled somewhere between the liberal media and the carnival barkers of Fox News, Kelly was thought to have crossover appeal.
The first crossover, from pugnacious nightly news to easy-breezy 9am comportment, seemed manageable. The second, from a devoted right wing fan base to the centre-left, was a dicier proposition, contingent in part on public willingness to forgive and forget. At the House of Murdoch, Kelly was often fiery, combative and flat-out offensive, passionately insisting for example that Santa Claus and Jesus were white and that the deaths of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Eric Garner had nothing to do with race.
But by going toe-to-toe with Donald Trump, and publicly discussing her experience of sexual harassment at Fox, Kelly shored up her feminist bona fides and managed to position herself as a liaison for family values conservatives who found the president temperamentally distasteful, a contingent NBC hoped might find a champion in the 47-year-old former defence attorney.
She was not, however, “done with politics”, as she announced on her show. Kelly was most natural and animated when talking about the #MeToo movement or John McCain. Asked to evince interest and charisma when discussing fashion trends, human-interest stories, or pop culture, she would struggle. Her morning show, she said, would “deliver hope, optimism, and empowerment”. But it only seemed to make headlines when its host had to apologise for something.
Kelly’s career was built on an embrace of the culture wars, but her stint at NBC required an about-face and some collective amnesia. It didn’t work: the network’s 9am hour lost an average of 400,000 viewers.
All of which is to say that in such divisive times, it’s a fallacy to think networks can profit off a television personality without accounting for the personality itself. For NBC, Kelly was a liability not only because it forked over an exorbitant amount to acquire her but because she came with considerable baggage and a taste for controversy.
In greenlighting the Roseanne revival only to cancel it after Barr compared a black Obama administration official to an ape, ABC made a similar miscalculation. What exactly did ABC expect from a woman who has regularly trafficked in right wing conspiracy theories, Pizzagate and Spygate among them, and once warned that George Soros would “overthrow” the “constitutional republic”?
What did NBC expect from Kelly, who has courted controversy consistently, though to a marginally less ignominious degree?
That TV networks can be hamstrung by their stars’ political leanings is not, exactly, a new phenomenon. NBC’s righteous response to Kelly’s remarks rings of disingenuousness, seeing as the brass knew of Kelly’s past before they hired her.
Trump has branded NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and MSNBC as enemies of the people, while redirecting his supporters to Fox News, which he exempts from the “mainstream” even though it’s the country’s most-watched news network.
For the president, such division is politically expedient. But conservatives in Hollywood and the news media, like Kelly and Greta Van Susteren, whose six-month stint at MSNBC also bombed, find themselves in limbo, forced to pull the wool over the eyes of left and centrist audiences or return to right wing media, where full-throated devotion to Trump has become a prerequisite.
If conservative actors like Kelsey Grammer and Tim Allen seem to have more deftly negotiated this divide — Allen’s Last Man Standing has been revived by Fox, talks of a Frasier reboot are ongoing — it’s only because they are less inextricably linked with politics — or that no one cares what they think. ABC positioned Roseanne as a direct olive branch to Trump country. When its star made good on that promise, the network reneged.
Some personalities would like you to buy in to the persecution complex. Barr said she was fired “because I voted for Donald Trump and that is not allowed in Hollywood”. Allen has compared being a Hollywood conservative to living in 1930s Germany. James Woods has similarly blamed his fall on industry bias.
Kelly is in a good position to blame her own firing on the same supposed bias. But what’s really afoot is not “PC culture” or the blacklisting of famous conservatives. It is the normal ebb and flow of market forces. For NBC, Kelly was simply a losing game. For ABC, so was Barr.
News media and networks want to have their cake and eat it, maintaining core audiences while gobbling up others. In Trump’s base they saw an opportunity, a contingent of voters supposedly under-serviced in entertainment, and tried to capitalise. But increasingly, in politics and in pop culture, the centre cannot hold.
NBC might not have gotten what it paid for, but the network’s cynical ploy to rebrand Kelly ended how many of us expected.