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NBC Should’ve Seen the Megyn Kelly Trainwreck Coming

Megyn Kelly Today NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

It’s been a bad week for Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News host whose new NBC morning talk show, Megyn Kelly Today, debuted on Monday. NBC had counted on the program to be a success that would further entrench its celebrated morning lineup. But the early reviews have been poor, the audience is already dwindling, and Kelly has suffered a wave of bad press thanks to a series of inappropriate on-air remarks.

On Monday, Kelly’s suggestion that a Will & Grace fan whom she had invited onstage to meet the sitcom’s cast “became gay because of” the program’s protagonist triggered an online backlash, with “dismayed” star Debra Messing disavowing Kelly’s show. Wednesday brought a disastrous sit-down with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford that culminated with Kelly asking the actress to discuss her plastic surgery; both actors called Kelly out in subsequent interviews with other outlets.

Kelly’s remarks were unusually insulting for typical morning talk show fare, and they may have shocked her celebrity guests and her would-be audience members. But they are much less surprising when considered in the context of her years at Fox, where offensive commentary is both acceptable and rewarded. NBC should have seen this coming, and its failure to do so has hurt the network.

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I’ve watched Kelly’s shows as a researcher at Media Matters for America since her first Fox program launched in 2010. Megyn Kelly Today, a fluffy vehicle for celebrity interviews and soft news, is nothing like the Fox programming that made her a ratings success on that hard-edged, virulently right wing network.

Kelly cultivated her cable news audience—first on an afternoon block and later as one of Fox’s evening hosts—by playing on the resentments of her conservative viewers and keeping them in a constant state of fear. Most critics know of her regular appeals to racial grievances, from her conspiratorial, race-baiting coverage of the New Black Panthers Party to her insistence that Jesus and Santa Claus were white to her victim-blaming criticisms of African-Americans abused by the police. But Kelly used the rest of the Fox playbook too, mocking and dismissing transgender people, fear mongering about Muslims, and hosting anti-LGBTQ hate group leaders. Kelly knew which buttons to push to send her audience members into a frenzy and make sure they’d continue to watch her show.

But even as she played on the worst impulses of her audience, Kelly also won mainstream plaudits over the years thanks to her confrontational interview style. A talented self-promoter backed by the powerful Fox public relations machine, Kelly got great press from reporters who apparently hadn’t watched many episodes of her programs. Then a series of heated interactions with Donald Trump made her one of the 2016 presidential campaign’s buzziest media stars.

With that image fresh in their minds, NBC’s executives gave her a $17-million-a-year contract and the freedom to do what she wanted, which involved hosting a daytime talk program. But Kelly’s rise to stardom concealed the reality that she lacks the range necessary to succeed in that role: She is an expert at the outrage and confrontation that sells on cable news but a mediocre interviewer who lacks the empathy needed to draw out guests on her NBC show. And her frame of reference for what constitutes reasonable commentary is skewed from her time at Fox.

Kelly likely didn’t realize that what she was saying was offensive—for a Fox host, used to explicitly bigoted commentary, it would barely register. Those skewed standards will set Kelly up for more of these unfortunate incidents, and they’ll mean more trouble for NBC.

Matt Gertz is a senior fellow at Media Matters. He joined the organization in 2007 and served as its research director during the 2016 election cycle.

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