The Truth Behind Megyn Kelly's NBC Deal

Megyn Kelly prepares for her Fox News show in New York in September 2015. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The Megyn Kelly story is about best laid plans going awry—ironically awry.

She bargained to be the biggest voice of the dominant news channel in America — and, as well, the best paid on-air personality in the history of television news. Instead, she's become merely a contender among the knives-out egos in the contested (and ever dwindling) territory of network news—and at a steep discount to the brass-ring salary she might have had.

The Murdochs, father and sons, thought Kelly was going to be their way of cleansing Fox of Roger Ailes and his brand of diss-the-elites conservatism—and of letting them, after 20 years of Ailes's control, set their powerful network's agenda. Instead, the network, even without Ailes, now seems ever-more in the Ailes mold.

Two things got in the way of these careful plans: Kelly herself and Donald Trump.

There is at any given time in the television news business invariably one person more mistrusted and reviled by all the other mistrusted and reviled people in the business. This is what's called the Eve Harrington Syndrome, after the amoral and unscrupulous showbiz heroine in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 film All About Eve (the syndrome, of course, is not gender specific). At Fox, for star colleagues down to make-up artists and, seemingly, by common agreement throughout the television news business, Megyn Kelly is the era's most hardcore Eve Harrington case—soulless, heartless, shameless, avaricious, etc. When Trump picked a fight with Kelly after the first Republican primary debate in August 2015, he cannily singled out a target who colleagues might hesitate to rally around. Indeed, he succeeded in splitting allegiances at the network—with many of her colleagues believing she had unfairly grandstanded in that debate. ("You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals….")

It was at that time—with the Murdoch sons, Lachlan, 45, and James, 44, assuming more command of their 85-year-old father's company and trying to maneuver around their nemesis Ailes—that they reached out to Kelly to lend their support in her growing feud with Trump, who was himself becoming another of the liberal-ish Murdoch sons' betes noires, the friend of our enemy (Ailes) being our enemy too.

With Kelly's rising anti-Trump stature, and Eve Harrington-type cultivation of the Murdochs, a master plan was hatched: Kelly would become the Murdoch boys' proxy at Fox. Indeed, she would become the main player in the plan to join Fox News with Sky, the Murdochs' European television empire (plans were then afoot for what has turned out to be a $15 billion offer for the 61 percent stake that 21 st Century Fox didn't already own), and create a global (read: not right wing) news network.

Several things seemed to help push this plan along: Trump's continuing success, the Murdochs'—both sons and father—increasing antipathy toward him, Ailes's ongoing partiality to his friend Trump, and then, in July, the Gretchen Carlson sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes and his subsequent exit. Many people within Fox believe that, despite Carlson's suit, Rupert Murdoch on his own would have continued to support Ailes. They believe too that it was the sons' leaks to the media with details from a quick investigation (an investigation by an outside law firm that was effectively concluded in days without Ailes himself being interviewed) and, most of all, their bond with Kelly—and her accusations of inappropriateness on Ailes's part—that forced their father's hand.

Much of the wrath about Ailes's ouster in an organization yet deeply loyal to him has been focused on Kelly, with few in Ailes's wide and loyal circle taking her accusations at face value. This mistrust was only compounded by her very public victory lap—a rushed book and a contract negotiation carried out in the media.

The Murdochs, though, were tenacious in their pursuit of her—with Lachlan almost playing the role of her body man—upping an original offer of $20 million a year that would have brought her even with Fox ratings superstar Bill O'Reilly, to $100 million over four years. At the same time, the internal mood at Fox toward her turned more toxic by the day. If there were resentments and guardedness before, by this past autumn she was all but shunned, showing up only for her segment and largely talking to no one. The Murdochs' offer of $100 million and leadership of the network had become a hopelessly poisoned chalice, with Fox an environment in which it would have been impossible for her to work.

For the Murdoch boys—thought by many to be quite willing to risk the Ailes money-making machine that delivered $1.5 billion in profit last year—the Trump victory, likely as unimaginable and horrifying to them as it was to the rest of the liberal media, together with the loss of Kelly, may curiously have the effect of saving them from themselves. The network that they hoped might become more global in its outlook is suddenly more…Fox. Without the tonal bump of Kelly at 9 p.m. after O'Reilly (and with the departure of Greta Van Sustren, newly signed up to MSNBC), there is now, beginning with O'Reilly—and with Tucker Carlson replacing Kelly, and Sean Hannity following at 10pm—a solid three hours of Trumpery. The Ailes network that the Murdoch boys had vowed to reform is still the Ailes network and, in spite of their best efforts otherwise, they have saved $100 million.

For Megyn Kelly, at a price one person familiar with the negotiations put at $17 million-$18 million (practically speaking it would be hard for NBC to let anyone exceed Today show star Matt Lauer's recent raise to $20 million), there was a prospective daytime show, with few models of success; a Sunday evening show, typically a loss leader; and a possible move for the hard-news Kelly into the soft hour of Today' s 9 a.m. hour. Some observers see her inevitable destination as MSNBC—from the top-rated news network to the lowest.

For others though, there is another path and a clear message for Savannah Guthrie, the Today show's female star: Watch out.