What Megyn Kelly's exit means for Fox News

The loss of its star anchor is only the latest reason the once-unbeatable network is starting to look vulnerable.

There could be some choppy waters ahead for Fox News. And, for Megyn Kelly, there is no guarantee she will be a success in her new gig at NBC. Just think of Katie Couric, who left NBC’s "Today" at the height of her popularity in 2006. This week, 10 years later, she is back as a guest co-host on the morning franchise, filling in for Savannah Guthrie during her maternity leave. How about a nice piece of humble pie, Katie?

News of Kelly’s departure is certainly no surprise. Her contract was ending. She was instrumental in the departure of former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. And her tumultuous relationship with president-elect Donald J. Trump made her one of the hottest tickets in town. Everyone wants a piece of her, so why not strike when the iron is hot? Clearly the time was right for Kelly to make the move.

For Fox News, the departure of Kelly could not have come at a worse time.

After years of Fox dominating the ratings, CNN is starting to make inroads. Just this past October, CNN beat Fox News in target adults 25-54 in both total day and in primetime for the first time in 15 years. More recently, CNN overtook Fox News on New Year’s Eve in the 11:30 p.m.-1:00 a.m. daypart (with 3.04 vs. 2.75 million viewers, according to Nielsen). And the sudden absence of one its two biggest personalities (Bill O’Reilly is the other, of course) leaves a tremendous hole in the very high-profile weeknight 9 p.m. ET hour.

Rupert Murdoch, who now oversees Fox News with his sons, James and Lachlan, has gone on record that "there are plenty of other Fox hosts eager to take over Kelly’s time period." But let’s get real for a moment. There is nobody in Fox’s current lineup that can replace Kelly. Greta Van Susteren, one of the top anchors on Fox News for the last decade, enjoys a solid following among the Fox faithful, but she abruptly departed in the wake of the Ailes scandal. Tucker Carlson has been floated as a possible replacement, which only shows just how desperate the network is. Along with Bill O’Reilly, Kelly has long been one of the network’s two pillars, and advertisers drawn to the network on the strength of this escalated duo will now have one less component of the equation to count on.

Note to Fox News (or any network): Never put all those "eggs" in just one (or two) baskets. Like corporate network Fox, which relied too heavily on "American Idol," it always comes back to bite you in the long run.

And let’s not forget Kelly’s appeal to those not yet collecting Social Security. Sure, all news outlets perform better among the 60-plus crowd than they do with millennials. But Fox skews the oldest of them all, with a median age of over 65. Kelly was, no doubt, one of the biggest attractions for anyone under age 50.

Meanwhile, things are looking pretty rosy for Kelly and NBC. That upcoming "triple role" of hosting a daytime news and discussion show, anchoring a Sunday night news shows and leading the network’s political coverage will certainly keep her busy. Heck, NBC could even use this monster talent to draw some attention to that cable news network no one seems to watch, MSNBC. Who wouldn’t tune in to see Kelly and Rachel Maddow go toe to toe?

But Kelly does not arrive without some negative baggage. Her high-profile primetime special on Fox last May (where she and arch enemy Trump played nice) was a fizzle. Only 4.7 million viewers tuned in, and critics blasted her for throwing softballs at the controversial candidate. And then there is that memoir, "Settle for More," she is so busy hawking. Have you seen the reviews, both by the critics and the readers? To paraphrase our president-elect, sad!

So does Kelly’s move to NBC represent the well-earned culmination of a distinguished career, or a hot commodity cashing in at just the right moment? Will our interest in Kelly survive the move and the conclusion of the presidential race? Will she be as compelling on a daytime talker as she was at 9 p.m., batting away Newt Gingrich’s bizarre accusations that she’s obsessed with sex? Outside of her comfort zone, one wonders if NBC’s hefty investment in Kelly will bode well in the long run.

Still, in a business where momentum counts, the smart money is clearly on Kelly and NBC to emerge victorious in this one. Or you can place your bets on Carlson.

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