Popular anchor Megyn Kelly will leave Fox News after 12 years to join NBC

Megyn Kelly, the popular cable news anchor who clashed with president-elect Donald Trump during his campaign, is leaving Fox News after 12 years to join rival NBC.

The surprise appointment was announced Tuesday by NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, who personally handled the negotiation to lure Kelly away from the top-rated cable news channel.

Kelly’s future had drawn heavy interest following management upheaval at Fox News last year. By poaching her from Fox News, NBC added an ascending news star to its anchor lineup and keeps her away from competitors CNN and ABC, which had expressed interest in signing her.

“Megyn is an exceptional journalist and news anchor, who has had an extraordinary career,” Lack said in a memo sent to staffers. “She’s demonstrated tremendous skill and poise, and we’re lucky to have her.”

Kelly, 46, is getting a daytime show, which could be scheduled after the “Today” show, where it can take advantage of the program’s lead-in. Kelly has also been promised a prime-time news magazine that will air on Sundays during the months when the network is not carrying “Sunday Night Football.” She will also be part of the network’s political and special event coverage.

There is no provision for her to work for NBC’s cable news channel MSNBC.

The NBC signing is a blow to Fox News, the 21st Century Fox unit that developed Kelly into one of its biggest prime-time stars with her nightly show “The Kelly File.”  But Fox also has a track record of developing new stars and has weathered talent changes before.

Kelly will do her final show for Fox on Friday. Her spokesperson said it is still to be determined whether she can appear on NBC before her Fox contract expires in July.

Kelly, who currently earns $15 million a year, had an offer to remain at Fox News believed to be worth more than $20 million a year.  She has long been a favorite of Lachlan and James Murdoch, who run parent company 21st Century Fox.

NBC did not match the Fox offer, but agreed to pay Kelly close to her current salary, said people familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.  But Kelly had made it clear in interviews and private conversations that money would not be the sole determining factor.

Kelly may no longer have felt comfortable at Fox News after participating in an internal investigation that led to the ouster of the division’s founding chairman, Roger Ailes.

Ailes was hit by sexual harassment allegations in a suit by former anchor Gretchen Carlson in July. Kelly was among the other women at Fox News who said he acted inappropriately with them as well. After leaving Fox, Ailes acted as an informal advisor to Trump.

Kelly detailed in her recent memoir how Ailes made sexual advances toward her early in her tenure at Fox News. Her colleague, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, criticized her for rehashing the matter in public.

“It was a toxic environment for her at Fox News,” said Jonathan Klein, a former president of CNN. “She took a stand that was unpopular with a lot of important talent at the network. Although she has a lot of personal strength, she may have concluded it was not worth the hassle to deal with that going forward. Better to go into a place that welcomes her with open arms and she can shift gears.”

Kelly has three children and has told colleagues and friends that she wanted to spend more time with them in the evenings. Her current program airs live at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

With her contract up this year, Kelly was able to strike while the iron was hot as her confrontation with Trump at the first Republican primary debate in Aug. 2015 raised her profile well beyond the audience of Fox News Channel fans.

In a statement on her Facebook page, Kelly said, “While I will greatly miss my colleagues at Fox, I am delighted to be joining the NBC News family and taking on a new challenge. I remain deeply grateful to Fox News, to Rupert, Lachlan and James Murdoch, and especially to all of the FNC viewers, who have taught me so much about what really matters.”

NBC’s emergence as a suitor for Kelly was surprising, as the network’s programs “Today,” “NBC Nightly News” and “Meet the Press” had a solid year in the ratings and have no pressing need for new on-air talent.

Carving out a new role for Kelly at NBC News for the annual eight-figure deal she was seeking is a bold move. It has been a challenge in recent years for TV news stars to transfer their popularity to daytime programs and prime-time magazine shows. Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira, Jane Pauley and Anderson Cooper all failed when they tried daytime programs. NBC’s last attempt at a new prime-time news magazine, “Rock Center,” was also a bust after a single season in 2011.

But Lack is feeling confident enough in the division’s current performance that he can expand his empire with an on-air talent who has demonstrated she can command attention and handle the scrutiny that comes with controversy.

Kelly withstood the online wrath of Donald Trump supporters for months after having taken him on in the 2015 debate and it continued whenever she did critical reporting of the president-elect during his general election campaign last year. Kelly has also been a target of the politically liberal watchdog group Media Matters for “distortions” in her reporting.

While mixing opinion and conservative commentary is part of the Fox News brand in prime time, it’s not often seen as a mainstream network news organization.  NBC is banking that she can appeal to a wider audience than the Fox viewers who see the broadcast networks as being too liberal, but that’s hardly a given.

"Megyn Kelly might be an outstanding journalist -- I'm not claiming otherwise -- but she's a Fox News anchor, and that's her primary identity to America's network viewing audience," said Michael Socolow, associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.

But Klein believes her debate stand-off with Trump -- after which time she required security because of death threats against her and her family -- will give her added credibility.

“She carries with her to NBC a brand of courage and fearlessness, a brand that’s provocative and intriguing to watch,” Klein said. “That’s a good start.”

Fox News Channel is now faced with filling a gap in its prime-time lineup and puts added pressure on the need for Fox to re-sign 8 p.m. Eastern time anchor O’Reilly, whose deal is up in 2017. O’Reilly has the largest audience on cable news and the lead-in “The O’Reilly Factor” provided to Kelly helped make her program a hit.

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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UPDATES:

6:50 p.m.:This article has been updated with additional analysis and reaction from TV industry experts.

12:20 p.m.: This article has been updated with a statement from 21st Century Fox executive chairman Rupert Murdoch.

12:05 p.m.: This article has been updated with statements from Lack and Kelly along with additional details on the deal.

This article was originally published at 10:05 a.m.

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