The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Megyn Kelly’s dismal ratings rise with focus on sexual harassment. Next up: Trump accusers.

Three of the women accusing President Trump of sexual misconduct speak out again, in hopes a new "environment" will yield change. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Megyn Kelly’s hour of NBC’s “Today” show is still struggling but showing slight ratings improvement.

During the first month after the show’s Sept. 25 debut, its ratings dropped severely — and remained low. They began to climb in late October, when Kelly shifted the focus of her show from lighthearted banter to the ongoing discussion about sexual harassment, including interviews with accusers of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein as well as media titans Bill O’Reilly and Mark Halperin.

And now she’s taking on President Trump, despite her pledge to avoid politics, by interviewing three women who have publicly accused him of sexually inappropriate behavior — allegations that he denies. On Monday’s show, she interviewed Jessica Leeds, Samantha Holvey and Rachel Crooks.

After the show, the women were to participate in a news conference “calling for an investigation by Congress of sexual misconduct by the president,” according to a news release by Brave New Films, which is hosting the event. The media company released a documentary on Trump’s accusers in November.

The president says he's "very happy" sexual misconduct by powerful men is being "exposed." He denies all of the allegations against him. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

At least 13 women have accused Trump of sexual harassment, according to The Washington Post.

Leeds told the New York Times that Trump groped her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt on an airline flight more than 30 years ago, while Crooks told CNN that Trump kissed her against her will in 2005. Holvey, a former Miss USA contestant, told CNN that Trump personally inspected contestants as though they were sexual objects during the 2006 pageant.

The interviews with Trump’s accusers are emblematic of the shifting identity of Kelly’s morning talk show, which has struggled in the ratings since its debut.

On the show’s premiere, Kelly had promised to avoid politics and invited audience members “to have a laugh with us, a smile, sometimes a tear, and maybe a little hope to start your day. Some fun! That’s what we want to be doing. Some fun.”

She mostly stuck to this format her first four weeks, and the reviews of the show were fiercely negative. And her gaffes made headlines. On one occasion, she asked a “Will & Grace” fan whether he was homosexual because of that show. On another, she asked then-79-year-old Jane Fonda about her plastic surgery. Fonda, who had come to talk about her new Netflix movie, was heralded for being dismissive of Kelly’s question.

Megyn Kelly tries dancing for ratings as her ‘Today’ show continues to falter

Kelly’s ratings were well below those of her predecessors Tamron Hall and Al Roker. During its first week, Kelly’s show was down 12 percent in total viewership from that time slot last year. The second week brought in 24 percent fewer viewers, and the third week saw a 23 percent smaller audience, according to Nielsen data obtained by Variety.

Things began turning around on Oct. 23 after Kelly delivered a pointed monologue critical of her former employer, Fox News, for its handling of sexual abuse allegations. She targeted former talk show host Bill O’Reilly, who was forced out of the network in April amid sexual harassment allegations, as The Washington Post reported.

She railed against comments he made during a CBS News interview before his ousting. When asked about the culture of sexual harassment at Fox News, O’Reilly said he wasn’t interested in having a conversation “that makes my network look bad.” He also said no one ever complained about his behavior.

“O’Reilly’s suggestion that no one ever complained about his behavior is false,” Kelly said. “I know because I complained.” (Kelly has previously accused the network’s ousted chairman Roger Ailes of sexual harassment. Ailes died in May.)

“Women everywhere are used to being dismissed, ignored or attacked when raising complaints about men in authority positions,” she continued. “They stay silent so often out of fear. Fear of ending their careers. Fear of lawyers, yes. And often fear of public shaming, including through the media.”

The monologue was widely praised. Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox noted that Kelly “brought some of her old cutthroat flair” to the show. During an interview with Kelly on “Late Night,” Seth Meyers thanked her for the speech, which he called both “impassioned” and “wonderful.”

Kelly addressed sexual harassment on the next several installments of her show, discussing various powerful men accused of misconduct, including Trump, former president George H.W. Bush and NBC political analyst Mark Halperin. She also interviewed Halperin accuser Eleanor McManus, and two of the dozens of Weinstein accusers: actress Dominique Huett and former production assistant Mimi Haleyi.

Audiences responded immediately. The show’s ratings jumped by 10 percent, according to Nielsen data obtained by the Wrap. It was Kelly’s best-rated week.

The show has retained this boost, drawing an average of 2.296 million viewers through most of November, the Wrap reported. While this marks an improvement for the show’s ratings, it is still “historically low” for the month, according to the blog.

Jackie Levin, the show’s executive producer, said the shift was in keeping with the show’s goals.

“Our goal from the beginning was to present a smart, informative program that would uplift, inspire and empower,” Levin told Variety in a statement. “Sexual harassment is not only dominating headlines, but is pervasive, affecting nearly half of women in the workplace, according to recent polls. Given it’s a topic that Megyn also feels very strongly about, it’s been a natural fit for her to cover in a way that has hopefully helped empower viewers.”

When her “Today” colleague Matt Lauer was fired last month after an employee complained about “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace,” Kelly noted “this one does hit close to home.” Then she opined about the plight of sexual harassment victims.

“When this happens, what we don’t see is the pain on the faces of those who found the courage to come forward. And it is a terrifying thing to do,” she said. “We don’t see the career opportunities women lose because of sexual harassment or the intense stress it causes a woman dealing with it when she comes to work each day. I am thinking of those women this morning and hoping they are okay. The days to come will not be easy.”

Last week, her interviews also included actress Alyssa Milano, who encouraged women to share their personal stories of sexual harassment with the hashtag #MeToo.

Kelly hasn’t eliminated the lighter sequences — she recently cooked a holiday ham with Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport. But she weaves those kind of stories in among critiques and commentary about sexual assault.

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