It’s a television truism: as certain as the centrality of the pretty blonde in Roger Ailes’s aesthetic cosmology, so is the primacy of Steve Doocy on Fox & Friends. But Megyn Kelly’s reported rise to the Fox News Channel’s coveted 9 p.m. time slot, by most accounts evicting Sean Hannity after 17 years in primetime, is more likely about something else—the Darwinian dynamics of demographics and ratings.
Let’s stipulate that the 42-year-old Kelly, who was toiling as an associate at a white-shoe Washington law firm when she made the leap to local television news in 2003, is easier on the eyes than the 51-year-old Hannity. He’s not a bad-looking bloke, but in recent sweeps periods—especially after Fox News chairman Ailes choreographed the 2008 departure of Hannity’s liberal-Democrat foil, Alan Colmes, and then, of course, the shocking results of the 2012 presidential election—his stats have been trending downward and older.
Add to the mix Hannity’s contract troubles with Cumulus Radio, which is reportedly ready to drop his afternoon drive-time show from stations in 40 cities, and you’ve got a commodity that is potentially reaching its sell-by date.
Kelly, on the other hand, has that irresistible litigator-next-door allure. She can be funny and earthy, as when she allowed Howard Stern to draw her into a back-and-forth about her breast size (and whether she’d get implants), her husband’s penis, whether she’d ever work as a stripper, and just how big a Republican she might be. Kelly—who often brings a prosecutorial zeal to her on-air interviews, especially with Democrats and Barack Obama supporters—likes to sell herself as independent-minded and nonpartisan, much like the “fair and balanced” news organization she works for. Currently on maternity leave with her third child by her second husband, Internet security executive turned novelist Douglas Brunt, she’s expected to assume her new perch in September, having averaged 1.2 million viewers (a very robust cable rating, easily beating CNN and MSNBC) for her two-hour weekday midafternoon program, America Live. Kelly herself announced her primetime gig in early July, during her farewell commentary before going off to give birth, although at the time speculation focused on the possibility that she would dislodge Greta Van Susteren at 10 p.m.
So far Fox News’ well-regulated PR militia has refused to confirm or deny the Drudge Report’s August 8 scoop about Kelly’s impending promotion to Hannity’s time slot, except to say that “the network has signed long-term deals” with its entire roster of nighttime talent, including Hannity and Van Susteren. Drudge, who used to have a Fox News show of his own, is pretty well sourced in these parts. In an appearance Thursday at a 21st Century Fox investors conference with Fox Business Network personality Neil Cavuto, Ailes reaffirmed that “Megyn has earned a better time period. She’ll be in our primetime lineup.” Coy about programming details, he seemed to endorse Van Susteren’s place in the lineup: “Greta has won her time period ever since she’s been there. She’s kinda put Anderson Cooper away. She’s a great interviewer, tireless worker.”
But Ailes was downright vague about Hannity. He “is a brand that many of our viewers [italics added] love and want to see. And he’s also … probably the nicest guy in the building.” A case of damning with faint praise? It’s doubtful that nice guys finish first in Roger Ailes’s hyper-competitive world. Back when he was a Republican political consultant, he once threatened to throw an obnoxious client, incumbent New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, out of a Manhattan skyscraper. Years earlier, when Ailes worked for a local Ohio television station, he tossed an annoying advertiser off a loading dock into a snow bank.
Hannity tried to put a smiley face on his sticky situation, telling listeners of his radio program that he is “actually enjoying people that really don’t know a whole lot, just going nuts. So I’m going to leave it there, just for fun.” In other words, he isn’t about to be pushed off a loading dock. “Let’s just say in the end, I’m very happy,” he added. “That’s all I can say at this point.”