Kelly’s imminent free agency has been the talk of the very chatty TV-news business. By late summer, James Murdoch and Lachlan Murdoch, the C.E.O. and co-chairman of 21st Century Fox, respectively, appeared hellbent on re-signing the anchor. Not only was Kelly a meaningful symbol of a post-Ailes culture within the Fox News bunker, but her ratings were also key to preserving Ailes’s estimated $1.5 billion profit machine, which the younger Murdochs were now tasked with maintaining. It didn’t seem to matter that Kelly clashed with O’Reilly, whose own contract expires at the end of 2017. It was clear that the Murdoch sons favored Kelly. They invited her to dinner parties at their homes. They seemed poised to put her on par with O’Reilly’s much larger compensation package, and possibly top his haul, which has been reported to be in the neighborhood of $20 million per year. “It was a perfect storm for her,” said a rival news executive, “and she has made the most of it.” According to multiple people familiar with the discussions, representatives for the network have offered Kelly a compensation package north of the $20 million per year. (A Fox News spokesperson declined to comment.)
Indeed, the headlines over the past weeks, including at the Hive, have anticipated a frenzied, industry-wide bidding war for Kelly. In my reporting on the negotiations, virtually every news executive appeared to be pointing to another rival news executive whom they believed would be making a major play for her. First, according to two rival executives, Disney/ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood appeared at the top of the list of Kelly suitors. Another executive told me that it was Fox News itself that had “the biggest needs and the biggest pockets to pony up” for Kelly. One industry insider explained that CNN president Jeff Zucker “would be crazy not to” try to poach her. That person, in fact, imagined a scenario in which CNN hired Kelly and might pit her in direct competition against O’Reilly himself—a drama sure to stoke the fantasies of cable news executives everywhere.