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Inside the Megyn Kelly Phenomenon: Right-Wing Snarls and Sexy Smiles Add Up to Monster Ratings

Kelly's combined 2.5 million viewers are beating CNN and MSNBC combined; can her toxic mix of beauty and hate make it in the long haul?
 
 
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Every intern, cameraman and anchor at Fox News knows one thing is true: no one ever went broke mongering white fear. Selling the idea that brown people are coming to get your stuff—whether it's your presidency, your kid’s rightful college slot, your medical insurance or the true racial identity of Santa Claus—has always been Fox's calling card. Over the years, that has proven to be a remarkably successful marketing strategy. But never has it been so winningly packaged as in the brand called Megyn Kelly.

Since its debut in October at the  9pm slot, "The Kelly Files" has killed in the ratings, raking in an average of 430,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic advertisers crave most. Her 2.5 million viewers are more than the combined averages of CNN, MSNBC and HLN in the same time slot. She’s been pulverizing Piers Morgan and Rachel Maddow. Variety last month observed that Kelly is “doing something extraordinary.”

Until last week’s no-black-Santa (and no-black-Jesus) remark, Kelly seemed to be crafting a career trajectory zooming her beyond the Foxbot brand and into mainstream television. Before she signed her last contract, Roger Ailes was quoted worrying that other networks would snag the 43-year-old lawyer-journalist.

There was talk of a possible future at GMA and "The Today Show."

“We’d love her to stay here and be even a bigger star,” Ailes said at the time. “I’d be stunned if she wanted to go to any other cable channel. That’s a real dive off a high cliff. If somebody wanted her to host The Today Show or something, she’d have to look at that, I suppose.” According to Brian Stelter, Kelly spoke with CNN, “which was very interested in hiring her,” and her reps sought a meeting at ABC.

The question that now must be on her agent’s mind is whether the no-black-Santa comment torpedoes that potentially rewarding mainstream career path. It all depends on whether Kelly’s viewers recognize the comment for what it was: the live-television version of a smiling horror movie pod-person cracking open to reveal the lizard within. And then, of course, it depends on whether those same fans secretly like the lizard.

Blonde, sleek and sassy, with publicity shots of herself supine in black silk, Kelly is visually a typical Foxbot. When she won the primetime slot, Stephen Colbert made a joke of switching the faces of Kelly, Greta van Susteren and Gretchen Carlson from under one blonde helmet to the next. “Fox is bringing in some fresh blood and not just for Rupert Murdoch’s wine cellar!” Colbert joked.

But Kelly brought elements to her career that elevated her above her peers. Like van Susteren, she’s a lawyer by training. Early on, she put those skills to to use as an “investigative” journalist, famously “revealing” that Obama’s Justice Department was soft on black radicals. Like Ann Coulter she knows how to harness the power of a sassy quip delivered from inside a black halter top. And, she’s managed to brand herself as a Palin woman, rejecting “interest group” feminism, proudly flaunting three on-air pregnancies while snappily shooting down neanderthals like Lou Dobbs and right-wing blogger Erick Erickson on women’s proper roles in society. She’s useful in branding Fox for women. As Alyssa Rosenberg noted on ThinkProgress after Kelly excoriated Erickson about women being genetically made for housework:

“The Republican Party as a whole may draw accusations that it’s fighting a war on women, an impression aided by a lot of male politicians who show a decided implication to chow down on their own shoe leather. But Fox News can use Kelly’s defense of working mothers, and of maternity leave, as proof that it isn’t utterly beholden to the least competent elements of the party with which it often finds itself identified.”

 
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