Somewhere in southern California and New York City on Tuesday night, two 40-something brothers with substantial power in the media world were likely directing their attention to something rather than the World Series.
One of those brothers is Lachlan Murdoch, executive co-chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. The other is James Murdoch, chief executive officer of 21st Century Fox. And both are reportedly active in helping guide the future of Fox News in the wake of the resignation of Roger Ailes amid allegations of sexual harassment.
One of their top priorities, as it was for Ailes before his departure in July, is re-signing Megyn Kelly before her contract expires in July of next year.
Kelly, 45, is host of the highly rated “The Kelly File,” which invariably finishes near the top of the cable news race on the ratings front. In September, for example, Kelly’s 9:00 p.m. (EDT) program finished at No. 2 for the month in total viewers and the key demographic of viewers ages 25-54. Ratings for October will be available at the end of the week.
For Kelly, the options are fairly extensive: She could go the big broadcast networks: ABC, NBC, CBS. But CNN and its deep pockets under Time Warner — and possibly AT&T — will also undoubtedly be making a strong play for her services, which have made noticeable gains on Fox News as of late. And while Fox News Channel is still leading in total viewers by healthy margins over CNN and MSNBC, the 25-54 demographic most coveted by advertisers has seen CNN top Fox for four straight weeks in that category — a winning streak hasn’t happened for the network in 15 years.
Of course, post-election could be a different ballgame on the ratings front for both networks, particularly if Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Giving thanks for Thanksgiving itself Immigration provision in Democrats' reconciliation bill makes no sense MORE loses, which odds and polls show is a good possibility right now. And a Trump-less cable news landscape will likely mean programming returning to relative normalcy — at least, as we once knew it in 2014, before this marathon campaign season began.
Simply put, Fox has simply performed much better in that kind of regular scenario than CNN over the years, but perhaps the latter will enjoy some staying power with new/converted viewers sticking around. Time will tell.
Still, it will be a high priority for the Murdoch brothers, along with Fox News co-presidents Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy, to sign Kelly, who is seen by many as the future face of the network for years to come.
Per Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison, the Murdoch brothers already have a strong relationship with Kelly, who has been with Fox News since 2004.
“Kelly and the younger Murdochs have been close for years,” reports Ellison. “They are now playing a pivotal role in persuading the network’s brightest star, Megyn Kelly, whose contract expires in July 2017, to re-sign.”
Ellison’s piece goes on to describe the Murdochs as more moderate than Ailes from an ideological perspective, and sees Kelly as the kind of challenge-both-sides host to build the network around.
This election cycle, Kelly has gotten somewhat of a reputation for being tough on Trump and his surrogates, putting the news host in the partisan spotlight among his supporters. It should be noted that for every controversial exchange she has with a Fox News contributor, she also has the kind she had with Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile last week, who felt she was being subject to “persecution” in an interview with Kelly over sharing a town hall debate question with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future Popping the progressive bubble GOP primary in NH House race draws national spotlight MORE’s campaign while at CNN.
Exhibit A on the equal treatment front was on display Tuesday night during an exchange with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), which has since gone viral.
Gingrich, a Trump surrogate, accused Kelly of being “fascinated with sex” after she asked about the women who have accused the Republican presidential nominee of sexual assault.
Here’s much of the exchange people are talking about today per the official transcript
GINGRICH: The three major networks spent 23 minutes attacking Donald Trump that night and 57 seconds on Hillary Clinton’s secret speeches. You don’t think this is a scale of bias worthy of Pravda and Izvestia? I mean you want to know why Donald Trump has had a rough time —
KELLY: If Trump is a sexual predator, that is —
GINGRICH: He’s not a sexual predator.
KELLY: OK. That is your opinion.
GINGRICH: You could not defend that statement. I’m sick and tired of people like you using language that’s inflammatory, that’s not true.
KELLY: Excuse me, Mr. Speaker, you have no idea whether it’s true or not.
GINGRICH: Neither do you.
KELLY: That is right. And I’m not taking a position on it, unlike you.
GINGRICH: When you used the word you took a position and I think it’s very unfair of you to do that, Megyn. I think that is exactly the bias people are upset by.
KELLY: I think that your defensiveness on this may speak volumes, sir.
GINGRICH: No. Let me just suggest to you —
KELLY: No, no, no, let me make my point and now I’ll give you the floor. What I said is if Trump is a sexual predator, then it’s a big story. And what we saw on that tape was Trump himself saying that he likes to grab women by the genitals and kiss them against their will. That is what we saw. And then we saw 10 women come forward after he denied actually doing it at a debate to say that was untrue, ‘he did it to me,’ ‘he did it to me,’ we saw reporters, we saw people who worked with him. People from “Apprentice” and so on and so forth. He denies it all. Which is his right. We don’t know what the truth is. My point to you is, as a media — as a media story, we don’t get to say the 10 women are lying. We have to cover that story, sir.
GINGRICH: Sure. OK. So it’s worth 23 minutes of the three networks to cover that story and Hillary Clinton had a secret speech in Brazil to a bank that paid her $225,000 saying her dream as an open border where 600 million people could come to America, that’s not worth covering —
KELLY: That is worth covering, and we did.
GINGRICH: — the tapes of your show recently, you are fascinated with sex and you don’t care about public policy.
KELLY: Me, really?
GINGRICH: That’s what I get out of watching you tonight.
KELLY: You know what, Mr. Speaker, I’m not fascinating by sex but I am fascinated by the protection of women and understanding what we’re getting in the Oval Office and I think the American voters would like to know —
GINGRICH: And therefore, we’re going to send Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFederal judge changes his mind about stepping down, eliminating vacancy for Biden to fill Joe Biden's gamble with history Can America prevent a global warming cold war? MORE back to the East Wing because after all, you were worried about sexual predators.
KELLY: Yes. Listen, it’s not about me, it’s about the women and men of America, and the poll numbers show us that the women of America in particular are very concerned about these allegations, and in large part believe that they are a real issue. And —
GINGRICH: You want to comment on whether — do you want to comment on whether the Clinton ticket has a relationship to a sexual predator?
KELLY: We on “The Kelly File” have covered that story as well, sir.
Note: Kelly does appears to have broached the term “sexual predator” based on a recent press conference by Kristin Anderson, a former “Apprentice” contestant, who referred to Trump in that matter on Oct. 14.
The segment ends with Kelly getting in one last jab at Gingrich, which many Trump supporters on Twitter are calling a cheap shot:
“We’re going to have to leave it at that, and you can take your anger issues and spend some time working on them, Mr. Speaker. Thanks for being here.”
“And you too,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich then tweeted this out on Wednesday morning:
For the record, @megynkelly was wrong, i don't have anger management issues. I do have media bias issues!— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) October 26, 2016
As someone who is a Cubs fan and was admittedly watching the World Series at the time, I didn’t see the first part of the exchange from the start. That is, of course, until my phone began blowing up with texts and direct-message tweets once Gingrich and Kelly got at each other.
This was raw and compelling television because it wasn’t an echo chamber marinated in the usual talking points or phoniness. Instead, it was a deft debater in Gingrich jousting with a former attorney in Kelly, who knows how to counter when challenged.
The New York Times, which seems to live within in a media bubble within a planet unto itself, couldn’t quite grasp what it was seeing and described the exchange with this curious headline: “Newt Gingrich and Megyn Kelly get into bizarre exchange on live TV”
This election has been built on authenticity, on blunt talk with politicians and pundits — even TV co-workers — speaking their minds, filters be damned.
Tuesday night’s “Kelly File” was a prime microcosm of it.
The question is for the Murdoch brothers is this: What will it take to keep the host in the same place when her contract runs out next summer?