By DAVID BAUDER, AP Television Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — After her brassy start at NBC News, viewers are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Megyn Kelly in anticipation of her big test this fall.
Her newsmagazine ends its eight-episode summer run this weekend, featuring Kelly’s interview with comic Ricky Gervais. That’s a light sign-off after her newsy debut in June interviewing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kelly’s show isn’t as popular as its predecessor in the time slot, “Dateline NBC,” and established the ominous trend of losing viewers from the week before with every episode. But NBC pronounces itself pleased, and points to Kelly’s range in conducting interviews with Putin, ESPN’s Erin Andrews, “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, TV personality Maria Menounos, conservative firebrand Alex Jones and women who work at Silicon Valley firms.
Now the former Fox News Channel anchor turns her attention to the more important part of NBC’s investment: a one-hour weekday morning show that premieres on Sept. 25.
“Our intention was to do some really good journalism, and I think we did, to do some fun pieces, and I think we did that, and to give Megyn a chance to do some pieces and she really came through for us in great style,” said David Corvo, NBC News executive in charge of newsmagazines.
Her interview with Jones attracted the most attention, with critics wondering why NBC gave a platform to someone who questioned whether the Sandy Hook school shootings took place. The interview that aired was tougher than a promotional clip distributed early in the week had led people to believe.
The debut of “Sunday Night” with Putin reached 6.2 million viewers and this past Sunday’s episode, which aired late opposite “Game of Thrones,” had 2.85 million. The show has averaged 3.71 million viewers, down 10 percent from “Dateline NBC” on Sundays last summer, the Nielsen company said. A repeat “Dateline” rerun that aired on July 2 reached more viewers than all but the first episode of “Sunday Night.”
Yet television viewing is off in general. CBS’ “60 Minutes,” which airs in the same time slot as Kelly, has dropped 15 percent in viewership over the same period, Nielsen said.
“I don’t think you can say it’s a failure at all,” said Brian Wieser, analyst at the Pivotal Research Group. “It’s way too early to say it’s a failure. It’s safe to say she hasn’t hit a home run yet.”
Marc Berman, executive editor of the Programming Insider newsletter, said he thinks NBC did Kelly no favors by putting her on the air during the little-watched summer months opposite the well-established “60 Minutes.” Better to air it in a time slot behind a more popular show — “America’s Got Talent,” perhaps? — or simply build anticipation so she starts at NBC with her morning show, he said. Instead, she goes into the fall with questions about her popularity, he said.
Corvo said another time slot wasn’t considered, primarily because Sunday evenings at 7 p.m. has been the home of a news show for more than two decades on NBC.
There’s also something to be said for giving Kelly experience and exposure in a different role than she played at Fox, before her morning show starts.
“I don’t know if the audiences are the same,” Corvo said. “I think that NBC News viewers who didn’t know who she was, who sampled the program, will have a very positive view of her because I think the stories she did were really strong.”
Kelly brought baggage with her to NBC. She’s caught in the middle between people who don’t like Fox and regard her with suspicion, while some Fox fans harbor bitterness for her tough questioning of Donald Trump in a presidential debate. Trump’s attacks led to a sharp increase in general awareness of Kelly, said Henry Schafer, spokesman for Marketing Evaluations, Inc., whose widely followed “Q” score measures the popularity of public figures.
The company’s most recent measurement, from earlier this year before she started at NBC, showed Kelly with a positive “Q” score of 8, below the average of 10 for television personalities, Schafer said. Her negative score was 38, well above the average of 22, he said. Kelly’s scores are worse among women, and women make up the bulk of the available audience for her morning show.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that morning competitor Kelly Ripa is a polarizing figure, too. And many people with high negatives — Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly come to mind — still command large fan bases, Schafer said.
“She has yet to prove to be offensive and if she ever proves to be offensive, that would be a problem,” said Lisa Herdman, director of national programming and branded entertainment at the RPA advertising agency. “So far there has been nothing in that way. I’m impressed with any woman who has come out from major challenges and has persevered and evolved and is making something of it.”