Megyn Kelly absent from show amid blackface controversy

'Given the circumstances,' repeats of 'Megyn Kelly Today' will air Thursday and Friday, a network spokeswoman said

Detroit News Wire Services

Megyn Kelly was absent from her NBC News morning show on Thursday following this week’s controversy over her comments about blackface, amid indications that her time at the network could be ending after less than two years.

NBC talk show host Megyn Kelly garnered a wave of backlash Tuesday after she suggested on "Megyn Kelly Today" that she doesn't understand the problem with people wearing blackface.

An NBC spokeswoman said that “given the circumstances,” the network was airing repeats of “Megyn Kelly Today” on Thursday and Friday.

The negotiations began before Kelly committed the major blunder on her program Tuesday, said the sources who were not authorized to comment on the discussions.

During a segment about Halloween costumes on Tuesday, Kelly defended the use of blackface while discussing a character Luann deLesseps on “Real Housewives of New York City” who darkened her face for a Diana Ross costume and wore a gigantic Afro to portray the singer.

During a round table chat on her show “Megyn Kelly Today,” she questioned why the use of blackface on Halloween was inappropriate, saying it was acceptable when she was a kid when portraying a character.

Social media condemnation was swift, and Kelly apologized to fellow NBC staffers in an email later in the day. Yet both NBC’s “Nightly News” and the “Today” show did stories on their colleague’s comment. Al Roker said “she owes a big apology to people of color across the country.”

She opened Wednesday’s show by saying she was wrong and sorry for what she said.

“I have never been a PC kind of person, but I do understand the value of being sensitive to our history, particularly on race and ethnicity,” she said.

The reference to political correctness in a discussion about blackface struck some critics as odd, along with the show’s cameras panning over the audience giving her a standing ovation for nearly 20 seconds.

Kelly jumped from Fox News Channel to NBC in early 2017, but it hasn’t been a comfortable fit. Her one-hour morning show has never caught on with viewers, except for a brief bump when she aggressively covered reports about sexual misconduct, and Kelly was said to be unhappy with the amount of lighter material expected of a 9 a.m. show.

Kelly did not respond to an email request seeking comment.

The question now is whether the reaction to her blackface remarks will affect the discussion about her new role. Kelly has indicated to NBC News executives that she wants to be more involved in hard-news coverage. Kelly is scheduled to be part of NBC’s coverage of the midterm elections on Nov. 6.

NBC aggressively covered the blackface flap on “NBC Nightly News” on Tuesday and again Wednesday on “Today” in a segment that was followed up with some harsh condemnation from two of the program’s African American co-hosts. Both of the taped segments contained clips of past racially insensitive remarks Kelly made when she was at Fox News, such as her insistence that Jesus Christ and Santa Claus are white.

But her comments on blackface, in which she said she failed to see what was racist about using it for a Halloween costume, has drawn the fiercest criticism yet. (“Back when I was a kid, that was OK as long as you were dressing up as like a character,” she said).

“The fact is, while she apologized to the staff she owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country,” longtime “Today” personality Al Roker said on the program. “This is a history, going back to the 1830s, minstrel shows to demean and denigrate a race, wasn’t right. I’m old enough to have lived through ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy,’ where you had white people in blackface playing two black characters and it would just... magnifying the worst stereotypes about black people, and that’s what the big problem is.”

“Today” news anchor Craig Melvin described Kelly on Wednesday as “a friend who said something stupid, who said something indefensible.” He was also skeptical that discussion about her remarks was a teachable moment, a notion that Kelly tried to convey in her email apology.

“I guess it was an opportunity for us to learn a little bit more about blackface, but I think a lot of people knew about blackface before yesterday,” Melvin said.

NBC News Chairman Andy Lack praised the comments by Melvin and Roker on Wednesday during a previously scheduled “town hall” session with the division, according to a person who attended the meeting. The attendee said Lack did not discuss Kelly’s future, but criticized her remarks.

“There is no other way to put this but I condemn those remarks,” Lack said, according to the attendee. “There is no place on our air or in this workplace for them. Very unfortunate.”

She met with NBC executives within the past month about dissatisfaction with the show’s direction, according to a person close to Kelly who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss personnel matters.

Kelly last month publicly called for NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack to appoint outside investigators to look into why the network didn’t air Ronan Farrow’s stories about disgraced Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein and allowed him to take the material to the New Yorker. That’s a particular sore point with NBC’s management.

She was also unhappy that accounts of Lack criticizing her for the blackface comments at the NBC internal town hall meeting became public, and fired her agent out of concern that his company’s representation of NBC News President Noah Oppenheim would be a conflict of interest, said the person close to Kelly. Yet the likelihood that a news executive’s comments before a roomful of journalists would remain secret is remote.

NBC representatives said they had no comment beyond the discussion of why Kelly wasn’t on the air Thursday.

All of this points toward a likely exit from NBC by Kelly, who has found it difficult to maintain a loyal constituency. Many of her former Fox News Channel viewers were upset by a perceived disloyalty in leaving and her clashes with President Donald Trump during his campaign. At the same time, her former association with Fox caused some NBC colleagues and viewers to regard her with suspicion.

Kelly’s viewers were given no reason for her absence; a notice on the screen said the show was “previously recorded.”

There were indications that the plans had come about quickly. “Happy Friday,” she said at the opening of the taped show on Thursday.

Kelly was a rising star when she was considered the more moderate of the conservative prime-time personalities in the Fox News lineup. She also showed she was unafraid to spar with President Trump, who attacked her after her tough questioning at the first debate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015.

But Kelly’s popularity at Fox News — where personalities can thrive with polarizing viewpoints — has not translated to NBC News or the generally feel-good atmosphere of a morning program such as “Today.”

Jonathan Klein, president of the tech company Vilnyx and a former chief of CNN, said this week’s controversy demonstrates how Kelly’s sharp-edged style is not suited for “Today.”

“Megyn never flubbed on Fox, where she was sharp, cool and always in control,” Klein said. “It may be that morning TV is forcing her to be something that she’s not.”

Kelly was hired away with great fanfare and a pay package reportedly worth more than $20 million a year. Since she arrived as morning host in September 2017, she has lost about a quarter of the audience of 25-to 54-year-olds who had been watching the 9 a.m. hour of “Today,” the group that advertisers most want to reach with news programming.

The program had an average audience of 2.4 million viewers in the 2017-18 TV season, a 14 percent drop from the previous year, when Roker and Tamron Hall co-hosted the hour. It had 700,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic, a 26 percent decline, according to Nielsen.

Kelly’s prime-time magazine show for NBC, “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly,” was a ratings failure and was quietly canceled by the network after eight episodes that aired in the summer of 2017.