It's too early to call Megyn Kelly's stint on "Today" an irreversible failure — but there are new signs that it's not just her own ratings that are suffering from her poor initial showing. Her flagging numbers are, reportedly, causing a not-inconsiderable decline across NBC's morning shows.
According to a confidential network source speaking to the New York Post's Page Six section, "Not only are ratings plummeting since Megyn Kelly joined the ‘Today’ franchise, but the numbers show Kelly’s lead-in has also affected Kathie Lee [Gifford] and Hoda Kotb’s show, which follows straight afterwards.”
While unconfirmed, the assertion makes obvious sense. According to New York Times television writer John Koblin, the ratings over the last few weeks of "Megyn Kelly TODAY" are down by up to 24 percent overall compared to the show's numbers one year ago when Tamron Hall was host. Based on these figures, the fact that the Post noted that the “Kathie Lee & Hoda” hour, which starts just as "Megyn Kelly TODAY" ends, is down 26 percent compared to last year's same-week numbers doesn't come as much of a surprise (the post pegs Kelly's own decline over Hall's ratings at 32 percent).
Another inside source painted a different picture for the Post. "Megyn posted her highest ratings yet in the ‘key demographic’ on Monday, and she had her biggest total viewer number since the premiere . . . Everyone knows that ratings fluctuate at the start of a new show, and there has been nothing but support for Megyn from all of the ‘Today’ show hosts. They have each taken her out to lunch — Kathie Lee just took her to lunch today.” It's a rosy view that doesn't actually speak to or refute any of the claims about the show's overall flagging ratings, instead focusing on internal bonhomie and a claim that things got a little bit better one day.
Overall, it's clear that Kelly is losing viewership, though where the audience is flagging is perhaps of more interest. Notes Koblin, Kelly has lost 38 percent in the 25 to 54 demographic, the slice of her audience that advertisers see as most valuable. Koblin notes that the problem is only getting worse as the show goes on, saying that the show is down 13 percent from its premiere week overall and 17 percent in that key demo. Basically, the audience advertisers covet the most is fleeing the show more rapidly than older audiences (though they're making a line for the door, too).
Currently, that's a problem for "Kathie Lee & Hoda," the day-drinking program that uses Kelly as a lead-in. Eventually, that could be a problem for NBC's bottom line.
There could be a number of factors at play. Anything from what's happening in the news cycle (remember that last year was the presidential election America couldn't stop watching) to weather trends can cause viewership to spike or plummet. Still, there are signs that the ratings slump is a result not only of systemic problems, but of poor, poor understanding of demographics on NBC's part.
That coveted 25 to 54 demographic is exactly the age group that tends to stay away from Fox News, Kelly's former home, and tends to skew more liberal. While Kelly was a runaway hit under the Fox umbrella, both NBC and "TODAY" have a broader audience, part of which already views Kelly as a compromised figure. Yes, she stood up to Trump at times, but her history and associations are still fresh in the mind of many. The idea that NBC producers could simply dust her off and repackage her as an apolitical figure — something laughed at around the time of her switch to the Peacock Network — is seeming more and more a bad strategy.
As well, there are racial issues to consider. Tamron Hall, Kelly's predecessor, was offered a reduced role at "TODAY" in preparation for the Fox host's debut. Ultimately, she justifiably left the network altogether. The perception that the network forced out a moderately successful, quietly progressive black woman in favor of a blonde, white conservative was not lost on many. Moreover, Fox News simply doesn't rank in the viewing habits of African-Americans or other people of color. In choosing Kelly to front its morning flagship, NBC effectively bet that a potential exodus by those audiences either wouldn't happen or wouldn't matter.
While there's no direct statistical evidence that viewers of color are indeed fleeing "Megyn Kelly Today," it's perhaps more than likely that they signed off the moment she boarded the show. Regardless of the actual hard numbers, which should be available at some point, NBC's possibly unintended (or fully intended) gamble that they and the more liberal would adopt the former Fox News mascot is looking more and more like a two-dimensional, insensitive understanding of how audiences, black and otherwise, think.
NBC saw a ratings winner in Kelly. By taking her out of the safe and overwhelmingly white confines of NewsCorp, it created a ratings loser that may indeed be dragging down their entire morning platform. If so, there would be a justice in that and perhaps a lesson in what happens when you allow privilege to steer your choices.