Megyn Kelly was supposed to bring star power to NBC News and a bigger, broader audience of morning viewers to its “Today” show franchise.
Instead, the three-year, $69 million bet to woo Ms. Kelly from her conservative prime-time perch at Fox News is backfiring.
Since taking over the 9 a.m. hour of the lucrative morning show in September and rebranding it “Megyn Kelly Today,” Ms. Kelly has struggled to make the shift to daytime broadcast television, with its delicate balance of soft features and hard news. Her ratings declines and higher production costs have been a drag on a critical franchise for NBC.
“I need to introduce myself to people who don’t know me or know some bastardized version of me that they’ve gotten from a website or a TV show,” Ms. Kelly said in an interview. “There are definitely some who only know me through some caricature they learned about on ‘The Daily Show.’ ”
Some of NBC’s affiliate TV stations are unhappy with the drop in viewers, and staffers on other NBC News shows have been grumbling about Ms. Kelly’s lofty budget. Hollywood publicists started steering their A-list talent away from the program when a feud erupted with Jane Fonda after Ms. Kelly asked the actress on-air about her plastic surgery.
In addition, Ms. Kelly’s Sunday night newsmagazine, which premiered to disappointing ratings last summer, has been reduced to occasional prime-time specials.
NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack’s big bet on Ms. Kelly was a throwback to the golden age of broadcast news when networks routinely awarded so-called star anchors huge contracts, believing the face delivering the news was as important as the news itself.
Today, the landscape of network and cable television is so big that there isn’t one person who necessarily draws the kind of audience to justify that cost, said Marcy McGinnis, a 30-year veteran of CBS News who is now a consultant.
The turmoil during Ms. Kelly’s first year at NBC, and the high-profile exits of NBC’s Matt Lauer and CBS’s Charlie Rose due to sexual-harassment allegations, have shaken up morning TV news, underscoring the big risks of high-stakes wagers on celebrity news personalities.
With the audiences for morning and evening news shows on a slow decline for decades, the focus of most network news managers is on profit margins and reducing the high salaries of the former era.
When Diane Sawyer stepped down from anchoring ABC’s “World News Tonight” in 2014, relative unknown David Muir was given the job and ratings actually went up. After Katie Couric gave up anchoring “CBS Evening News,” she was replaced by the less-known Scott Pelley, who has subsequently been replaced by the even lesser-known Jeff Glor without a hit to ratings. Those anchors commanded significantly lower salaries than Ms. Sawyer and Ms. Couric.
“Andrew Lack made the mistake with Megyn Kelly [from the beginning] with the decision to hire her to an anachronistic celebrity contract in the mistaken belief that star quality could turn into ratings gold,” said Andrew Tyndall, a television news analyst and consultant.
Mr. Lack, who persuaded Ms. Kelly to join NBC, defended Ms. Kelly’s morning and prime-time roles at the network. “Megyn has continued to prove that she’s a tremendously skilled, hard-hitting journalist, who adds valuable insight and analysis to all she touches,” he said in a statement.
Since joining “Today,” Ms. Kelly is averaging 2.4 million viewers an episode, 18% below what the hour was pulling in last season, according to data from Nielsen. The ratings have declined sharply for the past two months, dipping to a low of 1.9 million, after getting a lift from the network’s coverage of the Winter Olympics in February.
Among adults aged 25 to 54, the key demographic that the show targets, ratings are down 28% since last season.
Ms. Kelly’s ratings are also hurting the 10 a.m. hour of “Today” with Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, according to Nielsen data. That hour of the show, which focuses on lighthearted lifestyle and celebrity news, is down 6% in viewers and 19% among adults 25-54.
The performance of “Megyn Kelly Today” has allowed its chief rival, Walt Disney Co.’s syndicated chat show “Live with Kelly & Ryan,” to more than double its lead over NBC in that hour to 747,000 viewers.
“I’m sure they were hoping it was going to do better than this,” said Stacey Schulman, an executive vice president of television consulting firm Katz Media Group. “She is a polarizing personality.”
The “Today” franchise is key to NBC News and its parent NBCUniversal, a unit of Comcast Corp. “Today” generates more than $500 million in revenue and profits of more than $100 million annually, people close to the show said. It is the most successful and important program on the network and is the main profit center for NBC News.
“Megyn Kelly Today” is vastly more expensive for NBC than its predecessor, which was more clearly an extension of the “Today” show with shared resources. The combined salaries of previous hosts Al Roker and Tamron Hall were less than half of Ms. Kelly’s $23 million-a-year payday, according to several people familiar with the matter. Ms. Kelly declined to comment on her salary.