When CBS recently unveiled its new fall schedule, including the 50th season of its newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” one name came up repeatedly: Megyn Kelly.
Executives at the home of TV’s most famous stopwatch have obviously taken note that Kelly, who signed with NBC in January after 12 years at Fox News, is providing the venerable program its first high-profile competition in a while. To bolster its position, CBS News has even hired TV icon Oprah Winfrey to be a regular contributor to “60 Minutes” starting this fall.
“Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” will be the first test of a big gamble for both NBC and Kelly, who bolted cable news leader Fox News for a shot at broadcast network stardom. NBC is banking heavily on Kelly, who is said to be making $17 million annually at the network, to become an even bigger star than she was at Fox News.
In addition to her prime-time show, NBC is counting on Kelly to carry her own 9 a.m. talk show, which will break up the network’s four-hour block of “Today” in the fall.
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But Kelly faces a difficult challenge. Though “60 Minutes” remains a ratings force, the newsmagazine format has faded as younger audiences have moved away from traditional TV programs. And high-profile talent often don’t succeed when they switch from one network to another. Big-name stars such as Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel had trouble getting their fans to follow them to new homes.
Kelly, whose prime-time program premieres at 7 p.m. tonight, June 4, believes that it’s folly to focus on “60 Minutes,” which has dominated its time period for decades.
“We have no expectation of beating ‘60 Minutes,’ ” Kelly said in a telephone interview. “We’re going to try to build an audience over time and do our own thing. It’s generally a good way to lose by spending your time looking over your shoulder at your competitors. I think the better course is to play your own game.”
Kelly, as savvy when she talks to the press as she is when she does a tough interview, did not bite when asked about the addition of TV legend Winfrey as a “60 Minutes” contributor next season. Winfrey’s name will raise the stakes in any pursuit of blockbuster newsmaker interviews that NBC News will be seeking for Kelly’s program.
“I love Oprah, so I’m in favor of anything she does,” Kelly said. “I want to see more of Oprah on TV. I would not flatter myself to presume that they got Oprah to complete with me. My understanding is that had been in the works for some time.”
Viewers have known that Kelly, 46, is cool under pressure ever since her combative exchange with then presidential candidate Donald Trump at the first Republican primary debate in August 2015, when the real estate mogul’s candidacy still wasn’t taken all that seriously by pundits and political pros.
Still, it’s a daunting task for Kelly to start her NBC tenure with a new take on the traditional newsmagazine format that “60 Minutes” created – an hour containing multiple segments with investigative pieces and interviews. A potent staple of network prime time in the 1990s, such programs faded after 2000, as younger viewers became hooked on reality shows while news watchers had three cable channels to choose from.
Outside of “60 Minutes,” most episodes of current network newsmagazines such as CBS’ “48 Hours” and NBC’s “Dateline” are devoted to true-crime stories. They have moved away from chasing big interview subjects, which with so many outlets available are much harder to land.
Rick Kaplan, the veteran news producer who launched the long-running “Prime Time Live” for ABC, countered that giving Kelly the Sunday at 7 p.m. slot is a risk worth taking during the summer when “60 Minutes” is in repeats, except in the event of breaking news. “Sunday Night” won’t face first-run episodes of “60 Minutes” until January, when it returns after NBC’s “NFL Sunday Night Football” season ends.
“It’s a shrewd move by NBC News Chairman Andy Lack,” Kaplan said. “They’ve picked an hour that has already recruited its newsmagazine audience and they’ve picked it at a time when they are probably willing to try another show because their bible is in reruns.”
NBC was the last network to try a “60 Minutes”-type show with “Rock Center With Brian Williams,” which lasted two years. But Kaplan said that show’s failure doesn’t mean that a newsmagazine needs to play like an episode of “Law & Order” to break through with viewers.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a magazine show, a western or a reality show, if it’s a good show it’ll make it,” Kaplan said. “If it’s a bad show and it’s all about Donald Trump, it will die.”
Kelly, whose interview with Trump on a one-shot Fox broadcast network special in 2016 fell flat with critics who admired her tough stance at the debate, said there are no plans to have the president on “Sunday Night.”
“We’re not starting there,” she said. “We may get to that.”
Kelly did offer that she believes some of the coverage of the Trump White House has been unfair.
“There is also zero question that he brought a lot of it on himself – the man intentionally or not is a nonstop controversy generator,” she said. “But I do think that even among the journalists who are trying to cover him honestly, and a vast majority of them are, they would be very well to remember that not every action, even if it’s controversial, should require the vapors.”
Kelly will have some question time with another head of state on her first show: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will appear on a panel she is moderating Friday at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Some of the footage will be shown on “Sunday Night” and the news division is still hoping for a one-on-one interview with Putin while Kelly is in Russia.
NBC News executives are tamping down ratings expectations, adding that they will give “Sunday Night” time to develop a following. The early goal, according to David Corvo, senior executive producer of prime-time news for NBC, is to introduce Kelly to the network’s viewers.
“We hired her because she’s one of the best interviewers in television and we think we can build a credible show around her,” Corvo said. “She is unique and compelling and she can attract interesting people who want to be interviewed by her.”
The network is giving her a supporting cast of veteran correspondents including Cynthia McFadden, Josh Mankiewicz, Craig Melvin, Keith Morrison and Kate Snow. MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff, the son of Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners Vice President Steve Soboroff, will also contribute.
When asked what will make “Sunday Night” different, Kelly said it’s her.
“I’ve never done one of these before and I will submit to you that I have my own irreverent style of covering the news,” she said. “I think the whole nature of the show feels a little more cutting edge, a little more dynamic. I think it’s going to take a few more risks. Not risks with the facts but where we go and how we cover these people.”