An interesting question posed by Brian Stelter:
Kelly wanted out of Fox. She wanted out of the Bill O’Reilly/Sean Hannity prime time sandwich. Most of all, she wanted to be home before 11 p.m. or midnight. When talking with friends about this fork in the road, she sometimes pulled up a picture on her phone of her three children. She said the decision was really about them… And at NBC, she’ll have a more flexible and more appealing schedule. “Money wasn’t the primary factor,” her spokeswoman said. Conventional wisdom is that NBC paid less than Fox offered.
Fox would have bent over backwards to keep Kelly. So this was ultimately a decision about wanting — needing? — a new network home…
Former colleague: “If Hillary had won, would she have left Fox?”
Three different sources are reporting today that Fox offered Kelly no less than $25 million a year to stay put. Stelter himself is hearing it, as is Mediaite, and Gabriel Sherman had a source “close to Kelly” confirming it. Why would she walk with that kind of money on the table? Partly, says Sherman, because the atmosphere at Fox had turned toxic:
Sources close to Kelly told me today that her departure is an indication of just how unhappy she had become at Fox in the wake of her high-profile feud with Donald Trump and revelations she had accused Ailes of sexual harassment. Her relationships with Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity in particular had completely broken down, one Fox host told me. “Bill hated her,” the host said. As Kelly’s contract negotiations dragged on during her much-publicized book tour, things also grew strained with Rupert Murdoch, two sources said. One Fox insider told me Murdoch balked when Kelly asked for $25 million late in the talks. (A person close to Kelly disputed this, saying that said Kelly never asked for a specific dollar amount but that Fox had offered $25 million.)
There would have been relentless bad vibes for her if she’d stayed. For starters, Ailes loyalists may still not have forgiven her for corroborating the sexual-harassment allegations against him. There’s the pure ego factor involved in O’Reilly and Hannity being supplanted by Kelly as the network’s most visible star. There’s her habit of self-promotion, from the endless media tour to hype her book to the months-long drip-drip of leaks about her contract negotiations turning up in places like Vanity Fair to her exploiting her detente with Trump to create buzz for her network special.
But most of all, there’s the fact that she would have been stuck for four years as the lone voice in Fox primetime who’s anywhere close to neutral on the new White House. She would have been forced to choose between becoming a Trump shill to placate the Fox audience or continuing to run segments occasionally that are critical of him, knowing that doing so would chronically irritate some chunk of her viewers. Even if she ended up mostly pro-Trump, she’d still get attacked viciously by his fans for her sporadic heresy if only because they’re predisposed to dislike her after Trump’s demagoguery of her last year. That’s why the question in Stelter’s post resonates: If Clinton had won, Kelly could have been as critical as she liked of the White House and been right in step with O’Reilly, Hannity, and Carlson. The audience would have eaten it up. As it is, with Trump the winner, she would have been a hate object for viewers who’ll settle for nothing less than total conformity to the president’s agenda. John Ziegler, noting that Kelly’s program is reliably center-right and never viciously anti-Trump, put it this way: “Fox News watchers having a big problem with Kelly (and many of them do), is like fans of an NFL team calling on a member of their local broadcast crew to be fired because they refused to routinely deny when their team was turning the ball over.” Had she stayed, she would have had a boatload of money, never seen her children because of her schedule, and had nothing but vitriol spewed at her from both inside and outside of Fox. Of course she had to leave.
And she probably gave up more than just money to do so:
The fact that NBC isn’t moving her show to MSNBC in the evening may indicate that she’s tired of cable and longs for the prestige of a broadcast network. If that’s her logic, she’s making a mistake. I can’t think of any cable host who moved full-time to broadcast and thrived. On the other hand, going the other direction—from broadcast to cable—has worked to the great benefit of both Bill O’Reilly and Jake Tapper.
Kelly will also host something newsy in the Sunday evening slot. But as my colleague Hadas Gold points out, NBC has an unbudgeable tenant in Sunday Night Football, consistently the highest-rated show on TV. Sunday Night Football airs from September through December. What sort of momentum could a January through August news show possibly build? Kelly’s third job at NBC, reports the Times, will cast her in the network’s special political programming and its other big events. In other words, just another talking head.
The odds that Kelly will remain as big a name as she is now while hosting some sudsy mid-day show on NBC seem awfully slim. She agreed to that, I assume, because the time slot gives her more time with her kids and because, as noted, she had to get away from Trump TV at whatever the cost. Maybe there’s a long game in which she knows that, having paid big bucks for her, NBC will be eager to justify their investment by moving her into some higher-profile slot once it opens up, either on the Nightly News or on the “Today” show. But that’s a gamble. I think her move should be viewed, to some extent, as her knowingly volunteering to give up a degree of stardom, not just money, to get away from Fox.
One other thing about Fox’s mega-bucks offer: It seems awfully strange to me that the Murdochs essentially left it to Kelly to decide the direction of their entire network, but that’s what it amounts to. If she had taken the deal, Fox would have retained a high-profile straight-news presence in primetime, which would have complicated perceptions of the network as some pro-Trump propaganda outlet. As it is, according to Gabriel Sherman, “The one thing Fox insiders are in agreement on is that whoever replaces Kelly will be a pro-Trump conservative.” In other words, because Kelly wouldn’t take the deal, it appears that Fox will become a uniformly pro-Trump outlet rather than elevate someone like Shannon Bream to Kelly’s timeslot to do straight-news reporting. If the Murdochs were prepared to reorient the network that way, why didn’t they simply tell Kelly to take a hike and hand the 9 p.m. slot to, say, Judge Jeanine instead of throwing $100 million at her to stay?