The next Bill O'Reilly

How Megyn Kelly could save the graying Fox News from demographic doom

By Ken Tucker

Published October 10, 2013 4:20PM (EDT)

Megyn Kelly                      (AP/Richard Drew)
Megyn Kelly (AP/Richard Drew)

On Monday, Fox News celebrated its 17thbirthday in a number of ways, from unveiling Shepard Smith’s blindingly-lit, Whole Foods-for-robots studio set to introducing its rejiggered prime-time lineup, with Megyn Kelly shoving her new show "The Kelly File" into 9 p.m. EST. The move pushes "Hannity" to 10 p.m., which in turn sends luckless Greta Van Susteren spinning back to 7 p.m. to compete in key markets with "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune." This is a big shakeup for a network that thrives on maintaining familiarity for a viewer base that does not like change.

Usually, Fox News alters its landscape only when forced. The ratings bleed of self-puncturing Glenn Beck in 2011 compelled news president Roger Ailes to come up with a quick 5 p.m. bandage, the hastily slapped-on "The Five" (on Monday’s "Kelly File" premiere, Dana Perino said she’d never even met Greg Gutfeld until she arrived on set to tape the pilot). With the canniness Ailes possesses even under pressure, however, "The Five" – a raucously squabbling sort of malevolent "Brady Bunch" -- has turned into an established success.

By contrast, moving Kelly from her two-hour afternoon show "America Live" to a one-hour, post-"Factor" plum spot is a carefully calculated, almost inevitable, move on Ailes’ part. Too popular to continue to be tucked away in her early-afternoon slot, Kelly has long been an apple in the jaundiced eye of Bill O’Reilly, who regularly summoned her for weekly legal analysis sessions (Kelly practiced law for a decade). Kelly is an excellent solution to Fox’s demo-wilting prime-time problem: She’s enough of a hard-liner to provide flow between O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and keep their audience, but also clever, youthful and energetic enough to attract more new Fox viewers, especially women. Her smile – and when was the last time anyone smiled after 8 p.m. on Fox, not counting O’Reilly’s "Sharknado"-smirk? -- is a high-beam flashlight illuminating much of the murk in Fox’s fright-night lineup of walking-dead doomsayers like Charles “Frankenstein” Krauthammer and Bernie “The Mummy” Goldberg. And indeed, right out of the box, Kelly thumped CNN and MSNBC in total viewers, if not (in MSNBC’s case) the 25-54 demo Ailes yearns for like a midlife-crisis bachelor on the prowl.

After a first night of warm and fuzzy congratulations plus the ceremonial tossing of a softball to guest Ted Cruz (“What’s it like to be the most hated man in America?”; Cruz beamed like a kid without mandated insurance on Christmas day), Kelly came out roaring on Tuesday evening: “Shutdown shame!” she barked. “Tonight, a national disgrace,” she said of her lead story. Yes, she was hype-y, but it was hype in the service of good: drawing attention to the fact that the government shutdown has delayed due payment to the families of soldiers killed in current combat. Over on MSNBC, her time-period competitor Rachel Maddow was doing the same story, and as the latter put it, this shutdown outrage was something that “should cut across all political divisions.” And indeed it did as covered by both Maddow and Kelly … until it was time for the latter to interview a guest.

As was true of her afternoon show, Kelly is frequently failed by the talking heads booked to appear with her, hamstrung by the on-payroll, predictable voices of “Fox News Contributors” – in this case, Oliver North, who immediately ignored the both-sides-to-blame angle. Game team-player that she is, Kelly teed up North: “You think the president has something to do with this,” said the lawyer, leading the witness. North responded in full-throated war-cry: “It’s about whether the commander in chief gives a damn about morale!” So much for not politicizing a heartbreaking news story …

When it comes to reviewing TV news shows, it’s necessary to distinguish between content and form. In general, TV-news-as-news is just about worthless. All of the broadcast networks as well as the cable news outlets do little more than summarize what print news outlets provide – there’s next to no original reporting on significant issues, unless you consider catching Jay Carney in a semantic flub or an exclusive interview with a motorcyclist who endangered the lives of people in an SUV.

At the same time, in the unstated, mutually-agreed-upon conventions of TV criticism, most people who write about TV news pretend that the news and the on-air folks who deliver it are the authors, or at least the editors, of what goes on their air. This is more true of some than others, in ways that are often difficult to parse. With O’Reilly and Maddow, for instance, transparency is clear: Both have publicized the extent to which they write and/or frame their arguments. And one need only start watching Fox News at 7 a.m. with "Fox & Friends" through 11 p.m. and "Hannity" to know that Roger Ailes issues his diktats daily as talking-points that must be hit in every day-part, hammered home within the various styles of shows and hosts ranging from the hostility-tinged gibble-gabble of Steve Doocy to the pleasantly conversational exchanges between Jenna Lee and Jon Scott on the groovy "Happening Now."

The most interesting thing about watching Megyn Kelly is to witness her struggling for authorship of the talking points of the day. Confronted with the day’s menu of, say, having to insist Obama caused the shutdown, that the heterosexual family unit is under attack, and (for dessert) the videotape of an Indycar race gone spinning out of control, Kelly funnels all of this stuff out through a mind that wants to convey the info while also expressing skepticism where it might apply. She also offers slit-eyed ferocity where merited, and isn’t-this-ridiculous? good naturedness when she presides over a long-running routine such as “Kelly’s Court,” where she serves as chuckling judge over some lopsided controversy that would make a kangaroo blush.

Kelly is, by the standards of simple human decency in a 9 p.m. TV time-slot, an improvement over Sean Hannity, the babbling dissembler who, to contrast with what Kelly did on Tuesday, led off his show on that night with what he labeled “The Obama Shutdown.” His pouty-leprechaun voice squeaking with indignation, Hannity told viewers “President Obama and his left-wing hacks … took name-calling to the extreme.” (Translation: Obama gave a news conference that day saying he won’t be blackmailed by the Tea Party.) How can Kelly not look good compared to that?

Well, sometimes she doesn’t do herself any favors. One of Kelly’s Tuesday stories was about a commercial that employed female surfer Stephanie Gilmore, shown lolling around in a bikini or less. The ad had premiered in June, but no matter: In F.N.T. (Fox News Time), this was piping-hot fresh outrage: “Do Female Athletes Hurt Their Career [sic] and Sport By Being Sexy?” read the chyron beneath Kelly’s face, and she echoed that sentiment in her remarks, her emphasis signaling that, yes, she did think a woman “being sexy” hurts her career. I wasn’t going to bring up the thing everyone links to when writing about Kelly online, but Tuesday’s bit of blithe hypocrisy merits a well-there-is-this-y’know.

But one wrong way to analyze Kelly and Fox is to go the Fox-News-babe route, to the cliché that the network is overrun with blondes in high heels showcased in full-length shots whenever possible. As soon as I let it be known I was writing this piece, I got hostile-sarcastic comments directed at Fox about the way Kelly is always arranged behind a glass desk, her high-heeled ankles clicked together, displayed on a cute little stool. This, from people who in another context would be (rightly) defending Miley Cyrus, or invoking the mendacity of slut-shaming, etc. Look: Yes, Fox hires attractive people and yes, it knows damn well its straight white male late-middle-aged demo likes to look at short skirts. But two things: Megyn Kelly can/should/does dress however the hell she wants and remains an effective water-carrier no matter how much you may be appalled by some of the slop she’s toting. And the full-length leg-show strategy is no longer a Fox exclusive. In the Jeff Zucker CNN era, poor Kate Bolduan spends her "New Day" frequently looking cinched into her costumes, and over at MSNBC, when the camera does its constant 360-degree low-angle twirls on "The Cycle," you are compelled to understand why Robert and Michelle King wittily deployed Abby Huntsman as example No. 1 on the list of “Hottest Politicians' Daughters” on last week’s episode of "The Good Wife."

Right now, Kelly’s biggest challenge isn’t sexism; it’s setting the tone for "The Kelly File." Fox likes to say that it purveys hard news all day and reserves prime-time for opinion. Kelly is not – yet – a fulminator like O’Reilly or Hannity (and the fact that Van Susteren had no stomach for that probably accounts for her move to 7 p.m.). Pretty soon, she’ll have to decide whether she’s going to start opining Foxily to make more people Kelly-philes. I’m helping her out here; on her opening night, she asked Dana Perino if George W. Bush was “a Kelly-phile – I’m trying to get that term started.”

As her terrific, legendary-among-Kelly-philes 2010 interview with Howard Stern proved, Kelly is exceedingly self-aware. And it may be that, a few days in, she’s already figured out her positioning. Buoyed by second-night ratings that propelled past even O’Reilly, Kelly spent Wednesday night settling in by amping up her outrage quotient, her red-coal-hot chyrons asking, “Death Benefits Denied: When Did President Obama Know?” She deployed new “Fox News Contributor” Dr. Ben Carson in a segment aimed at congressional hearings about IRS targeting. Unfortunately, Dr. Carson didn’t seem prepped for the segment and went off on Obamacare and lecturing us on “Vladimir Lenin, one of the founders of socialism and Communism.” No matter; Kelly has located her place in the center of the Fox News firmament: She’s the Avenging Crusader, every night at 9.

Ken Tucker

Ken Tucker is a cultural critic for a variety of publications.

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Bill O'reilly Editor's Picks Fox News Megyn Kelly Rachel Maddow Roger Ailes The Kelly File