‘The Kelly File’ host is in active negotiations; keeping her at the network is a priority for management, including Rupert Murdoch. ‘It’s up to her’ and others ‘would give their right arm for her spot,’ he says.
by Joe Flint
The Wall Street Journal
Fox News star Megyn Kelly has changed agents and publicity teams since last year. Now the question is if she will change TV networks.
Host of “The Kelly File,” one of the cable-news channel’s most popular shows, Ms. Kelly is in active talks over her contract, which expires next July. Her profile has been rising during the presidential election cycle, in part thanks to a dust-up with Republican candidate Donald Trump.
Asked if Ms. Kelly would stay at the channel, Mr. Murdoch said in an interview that she is important to the network and he hopes to get a contract signed “very soon,” but noted, “it’s up to her.”
Mr. Murdoch said he is kept abreast of the talks “every minute of the day.” While he doesn’t want to lose her, he said, “we have a deep bench of talent, many of whom would give their right arm for her spot.”
Mr. Murdoch and his family are major stakeholders in both 21st Century Fox and Wall Street Journal owner News Corp.
For the final year of her current deal, Ms. Kelly is set to receive about $15 million, people familiar with the matter said. The people said she is seeking an average annual salary north of $20 million for her next contract—which would put her on par with Fox host Bill O’Reilly.
Mr. Murdoch said money isn’t an issue in the talks.
Ms. Kelly declined to comment.
The networks seen as most likely to make an aggressive play for Ms. Kelly are CNN, where she could go up against Fox News in prime-time, and ABC, where TV executives say she might fit well on “Good Morning America” or in an evening newsmagazine. CNN and ABC declined to comment.
Ms. Kelly’s show has averaged 2.7 million viewers this year, according to Nielsen, second among Fox News shows to Mr. O’Reilly’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” which is averaging 3.2 million viewers this year.
As with other cable-news networks, Fox News has gotten an audience boost from interest in the presidential election. The network still easily beats rivals CNN and MSNBC in viewers and key demographics and often tops popular entertainment and sports channels. It also has long been a profit engine for 21st Century Fox, generating roughly 20% of its operating income.
Fox News is known for opinion programming that tilts right politically. But Ms. Kelly, a former lawyer who cross-examines guests, has built a reputation for being more nuanced and less of an ideologue than colleagues like Mr. O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Earlier this week, she took on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich about how Mr. Trump was faring in the polls and accusations that the candidate is a sexual predator, resulting in a bruising on-air back-and-forth that went viral.
Ms. Kelly was thrust into the national spotlight last year after she questioned Mr. Trump during a Republican primary debate about his attitude toward women. That issue has taken center stage in the presidential race. To some in the TV industry, her approach took courage, given that Mr. Trump was close with Ms. Kelly’s then-boss Roger Ailes.
“To be able to stand up and ask tough questions to your boss’s choice of president shows a certain steeliness,” said former CNN President Jon Klein.
Ms. Kelly also separated herself from other on-air talent over the sexual harassment scandal that led to Mr. Ailes’s departure in July. While other high-profile talent at the network defended Mr. Ailes against accusations made by former anchor Gretchen Carlson, Ms. Kelly’s silence was noticeable. And she participated in the internal investigation that turned up several accusations of sexual misconduct by Mr. Ailes and led to his downfall, people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Ailes has denied the allegations.
Ms. Kelly is viewed by some TV veterans as a vehicle for the network to turn from the hard right tone Mr. Ailes established to a more centrist approach.
“If they are going to make a network that is going to be a post-Ailes/post-Trump, it will be around Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace and Shep Smith, and they are going to have to throw Hannity and O’Reilly overboard,” said Andrew Tyndall, a television-news consultant, of other hosts at the network.
That isn’t going to happen, promised Mr. Murdoch. “We’re not changing direction…that would be business suicide,” he said.
Mr. O’Reilly’s contract is also up at the end of next year, and Mr. Murdoch said, “we’re going to want Bill to stay with us.” Mr. Hannity’s contract isn’t up until 2020.
Ms. Kelly has forged close ties to Mr. Murdoch’s sons, particularly Lachlan Murdoch, who is co-executive chairman of Fox and has taken an active role in contract talks, people close to the situation said.
Ms. Kelly last year switched from the United Talent Agency to the bigger Creative Artists Agency in advance of negotiations and earlier this year hired high-powered entertainment publicist Leslee Dart as well.
While few question Ms. Kelly’s interviewing skills, some wonder if her tough persona would translate to the softer touch associated with morning or afternoon television. Her attempt to do a Barbara Walters-type celebrity prime-time special earlier this year was a critical and ratings disappointment.
“She’s not yet shown a warm and fuzzy side,” said Shelley Ross, a former executive producer of “Good Morning America.”
Ms. Kelly will get a chance to show a lighter side the day after the election when she will co-host “Live with Kelly,” the popular daytime chat show starring Kelly Ripa.