Megyn Kelly says she’s ‘willing to work’ to make her morning show successful

Megyn Kelly occasionally reminds her morning viewers that she’s not big on exercise. And yet she’s been doing a lot of heavy lifting lately: trying to build an audience for a new TV show at a time when viewers can be hard to find.

In recent weeks, she’s endured several intense A.M. workouts as her NBC program “Megyn Kelly Today” has placed new emphasis on deeper dives into emotional topics. Kelly has hosted a group of transgender teens who came out on her show; interviewed a Stamford, Conn., firefighter about finding the bodies of children; and talked to a man who decided to forgive a son who killed the other members of their family. She explored all of these across multiple segments that in some cases took up the bulk of the show.

Yes, Kelly is still doing cooking demonstrations and giving away prizes. And she continues to tangle with hard-nosed attorneys and snare exclusive interviews with victims of sexual harassment.  But she says she’s eager to delve into some of these emotional subjects with new depth and nuance. “Giving these segments more breathing room” differentiates the show, she tells Variety during an interview in her office at NBC’s 30 Rock headquarters. “I feel like if we do enough of those shows over time, people will understand they can turn to us for meaningful, respectful, strong storytelling,” she adds. “We are putting chips in the bank with our audience.”

The anchor realizes she has more to do to win viewers over. Her move to NBC News last year was one of the industry’s most scrutinized switches in recent memory. She rocketed to primetime stardom at Fox News Channel, suffering no fools on camera. “When I see B.S., I’ll call it out, no matter who is sitting in the chair across from me,” Kelly says. So expectations were high when NBC convinced her last year to jump ship to work on the morning program, a Sunday newsmagazine and political coverage.  Fox News paid her $15 million in the last year of her contract there, according to a 2016 report in The Wall Street Journal.

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Twitter reacts to Megyn Kelly's morning show
If you're not watching Megyn Kelly's morning debut right now . . . It's one of the more mortifying things I've seen in a while
So Megyn Kelly’s gonna interview the cast of @WillAndGrace like she didn’t spend years making anti-LGBTQ comments on Fox News? Cool...
Megyn Kelly did not talk about the NFL/anthem controversy today...if she was still hosting her Fox News show what would she have said?
Sketch idea: Megyn Kelly tries to "have fun & avoid politics" with her 1st guest list, Kid Rock, Jimmy Kimmel and the Golden State Warriors
Megyn Kelly on why she's not "doing politics" anymore as if the trash fire that is our country isn't largely Fox Ne… https://t.co/rwFKsd8aiu
I see things are off to a solid start over on Megyn Kelly's new show... https://t.co/fOUoaX0Yyu https://t.co/DmMhvzX6km
I like how NBC is making Megyn Kelly look like this friendly white lady who cares. FUCK HER AND NBC
I ask everyone to boycott @megynkelly She LIED about @BarackObama 4 Eight years, part of birtherism, Fox, Murdoch,… https://t.co/GFzfbSeZcC
Considering how she built her career, Megyn Kelly’s “I don’t even care about politics!” act as she launches her new show is truly special.
Megyn Kelly: "Me, me, me. Blah blah. Me, me, me. Enough about me. How about this audience...what do u guys thi… https://t.co/LjLWIOEwUr
Can we please have Tamron Hall back! What an idiotic move, @NBCNews. "Megyn Kelly" is so awful.
Remember when Megyn Kelly actually went on-air to tell people that Santa Claus was definitely, 100% white?
2. Megyn says "I'm kinda done with politics for now" months ago NBC secured her Putin's first US tv interview since election and Alex Jones
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But her journey from 9 p.m. on Fox News to 9 a.m. on NBC has not resulted in an immediate ratings bonanza. “Megyn Kelly Today” has earned an average of 2.46 million season to date as of March 25, according to figures from Nielsen. The show she replaced, a third hour of “Today” less reliant on a single personality, captured an average of 2.8 million in the 2016-2017 TV season.  And one of her main time-slot competitors, the syndicated Disney program “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” has won an average of nearly 3.22 million in the current season.

“Maybe there was some initial expectation that this was going to go through the stratosphere, but I think patience is the optimal term,” says Dave Sederbaum, senior vice president of video activation at media-buying agency Carat. “It has been slowly but surely progressing,” he adds, and advertisers in “Today” have continued to support the show.

Kelly has been in a fishbowl since the show’s launch in September. Some early on-air hiccups sparked much commentary about whether she was suited to the largely female morning-TV audience and whether NBC News is getting its money’s worth given the size of her contract. Kelly admits her show is a work in progress.

“In my experience, it takes a show about a year to find its sea legs, to figure out who it is, and that’s true of me too,” says Kelly. “In morning television, it takes a while to change an audience’s viewing habits, and so I have to earn the trust of the audience, and I’m willing to work for it.” Her program has seen viewership rise 12% in the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programming – people between 25 and 54 – since October, her first full month on the air. Overall viewership has increased 8% since that time, according to Nielsen. On some occasions, a broadcast of the show has reached more than 3 million viewers.

She says NBC News shares similar expectations. “I’m just grateful I’ve been given a long runway to develop that relationship” with viewers, she adds. In May of last year, NBC News Group Chairman Andrew Lack told affiliates that her show “is not going to be perfect on Day One, and we’re not going to be in first place on Day Two – but I’d rather be holding our cards than anyone else’s.

Kelly takes pride in a recent broadcast that threw a spotlight on a horrific problem. The anchor interviewed mothers of severely disturbed children – sons who killed animals, terrorized siblings or sought out child pornography – who could find no help from psychiatrists or social workers. One of the mothers described how one of her other children kept a butter knife under a pillow in case of attack, and two of the women unexpectedly locked hands on camera for support. Audience response was so fervent around one of the women’s earlier appearances, Kelly says, that producers felt they had to address the topic in a bigger way, devoting multiple segments over the course of an hour to the subject.

“You can’t do that in a five-minute segment,” Kelly says. “Do you know how disrespectful that would be?”

When asked whether the deeper focus on social issues is reminiscent of “Donahue,” the landmark syndicated talk show that aired for 26 years, she acknowledges watching the program while growing up. Phil Donahue was an early guest on “Megyn Kelly Today,” and Kelly met him for lunch to hear his thoughts on TV. But she notes she watched lots of other programming, including “Judge Judy” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in her formative years. Donahue, she adds, told her he enjoyed being provocative on camera  — getting TV stations switchboards to light up because of what viewers saw on screen. “Maybe it’s my 14 years in cable news, but I’m less enamored of controversy, even though I tend to find myself immersed in it often,” she says. “I’m sort of trying to go toward the light, as opposed to [rubbing] sandpaper.”

Before her morning program launched last fall, Kelly visited NBC affiliates like WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina, a station with a reputation for occasionally preempting programming it feels won’t suit its viewers. She talked to fans at a Durham Bulls baseball game, and WRAL general manager Steve Hammell recalls her signing autographs and throwing out the first pitch of the game. He says Kelly’s show will stay on air. “There are times that she beats ‘Kelly and Ryan,’ and there are times she does not,” says Hammell, but “the viewers are seeing something that they like.”

Celebrities can be part of that mix under the right circumstances, but Kelly knew early on she did not want to host an hour that hinged on glitzy appearances. “There’s nothing wrong with hosting a celebrity who just wants to promote a project, but it’s just not exactly what I want to do on this program,” she says. “My general standard has been if they have something more they want to offer – some sort of wisdom, some sort of life advice, some sort of personal moment they want to share with the audience, I’m game. But if it’s solely to promote a vehicle, I think there are enough programs out there that they don’t need this 9 o’ clock hour to do it, and that’s worked out fine for me.” She recently did longer interviews with actress Tatum O’Neal and “This Is Us” star Chrissy Metz that took very personal turns. A visit from former “Happy Days” actress Marion Ross turned into a reunion with fellow show alums Anson Williams and Donny Most.

Kelly says she has no regrets about calling out actress Jane Fonda – an incident that made some showbiz publicists wary of bringing their stars to “Megyn Kelly Today.”  During a September appearance on “Megyn Kelly Today,” the host had asked her about plastic surgery, and Fonda bristled at the time — and then revived the controversy in January during other media appearances. Kelly responded forcefully, suggesting Fonda had no business calling her out for asking reasonable questions, and even cited “Hanoi Jane,” a reference to the way some Americans disparaged the actress for protesting the Vietnam War.

“She attacked me repeatedly when we launched the show and I let it go, over and over. And then she renewed it in very personal terms. It became clear to me she was trading on it,” says Kelly.”I am trying to model for my children – all three of them, but especially my daughter. Being a lady doesn’t always mean ignoring attacks. Sometimes it does mean throwing a sharp elbow to stand up for yourself. I feel that’s what I did – and she hasn’t attacked me since.” In recent weeks, Kelly has conducted very personal interviews with Tatum O’Neal and “This Is Us” actress Chrissy Metz, delving into their relationships with family. A recent appearance by “Happy Days” star Marion Ross resulted in a surprise reunion with other actors from the show, Anson Williams and Donny Most.

She intends to continue her other duties for NBC News, though NBC announced a few weeks ago her Sunday program has been recalibrated to accommodate her morning responsibilities. “I think I didn’t fully appreciate how much work the 9 a.m. was going to require of me,” she notes. Rather than doing weekly Sunday broadcasts, she anticipates doing special hours like one recently devoted to her interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

She also wants to delve into lighter topics when appropriate.  She has been spotted running on a treadmill on the program, despite her reluctance to work out. And she will continue to offer segments on smarter living, and, yes, will do the occasional meet-and-greet with reality stars from the “Real Housewives” series on corporate sibling Bravo. If some people think she ought to stick to either serious or silly, Kelly says she can do both. “I insist that the world come to understand that no woman must choose between being strong and being fun, being tough and being liked,” she says. “It can all happen at once. You can be feminine and you can be strong. Stand by.”

RELATED: Megyn Kelly and husband Douglas Brunt together

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Megyn Kelly and husband Douglas Brunt together
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Megyn Kelly and husband Douglas Brunt together
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 24: Megyn Kelly (R) and Douglas Brunt attend New York Philharmonic's Spring Gala, A John Williams Celebration at David Geffen Hall on May 24, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for New York Philharmonic)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 24: Alec Baldwin, Hilaria Thomas Baldwin, Megyn Kelly and Douglas Brunt attend New York Philharmonic's Spring Gala, A John Williams Celebration at David Geffen Hall on May 24, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for New York Philharmonic)
LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 07: Novelist Douglas Brunt (L) and Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly attend the 142nd Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 07, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Churchill Downs)
LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 07: Novelist Douglas Brunt, journalist Megyn Kelly, Dannielynn Birkhead, and Larry Birkhead are seen around the 142nd Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 7, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Churchill Downs)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02: Megyn Kelly (L) and Douglas Brunt attend 'Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology' Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Stewart/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02: Douglas Brunt (L) and Megyn Kelly attend the 'Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology' Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: Douglas Brunt and Megyn Kelly attend the Bloomberg & Vanity Fair cocktail reception following the 2015 WHCA Dinner at the residence of the French Ambassador on April 30, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/VF16/WireImage)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: Douglas Brunt and Megyn Kelly attend the 102nd White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on April 30, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 06: (L-R) Douglas Brunt, Megyn Kelly and Lloyd Grove attend The Hollywood Reporter's 5th Annual 35 Most Powerful People in New York Media on April 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Hollywood Reporter )
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Douglas Brunt and Megyn Kelly attend the 2016 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Graydon Carter at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 28, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 28: (EXCLUSIVE ACCESS, SPECIAL RATES APPLY) Douglas Brunt and Megyn Kelly attend the 2016 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Graydon Carter at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 28, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/VF16/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 28: (EXCLUSIVE ACCESS, SPECIAL RATES APPLY) (L-R) Novelist Douglas Brunt, journalist Megyn Kelly, actor Bob Balaban, writer/producer Matthew Weiner and Linda Brettler attend the 2016 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Graydon Carter at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 28, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jeff Vespa/VF16/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Novelist Douglas Brunt (L) and journalist Megyn Kelly arrive at the 2016 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted by Graydon Carter at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 28, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 18: (L-R) Journalist Mark Leibovich, Douglas Brunt, journalist Megyn Kelly, and journalist Jim Rutenberg attend The New York Times Magazine Relaunch Event on February 18, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 18: Douglas Brunt and journalist Megyn Kelly attend The New York Times Magazine Relaunch Event on February 18, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 29: Writer Douglas Brunt (L) and Honoree Megyn Kelly attend the TIME 100 Gala, TIME's 100 most influential people in the world, at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 29, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for TIME)
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