Her debate showdown in August with presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump raised her profile enough to make her a magazine cover subject, coveted talk show guest, and trending Twitter topic. Even though Kelly's recent squishy interview with Trump on a prime-time Fox broadcast special was panned by critics who had earlier applauded her ability to stand up to the candidate, TV news executives and agents say she is still expected to draw strong interest from other networks when her deal with Fox News comes up in July 2017.
Kelly has said she was undecided about her future with Fox News. But if she becomes available, the competition for her services will be a test of the value of star power at a time when TV news is trying to control costs.
The leaner economic times for the network news business have made moves by big star anchors less frequent, and bidding wars rare. Networks increasingly rely on developing their own talent and paying them accordingly once they become proven ratings attractions. Based on past moves by star anchors, there is no guarantee that many viewers will follow someone to a new outlet.
"History will tell you that it's very hard to go across the street to succeed," said former ABC News chairman David Westin, who is now a morning anchor for Bloomberg Television. "There are fewer of these instances than you might think."
Although Kelly makes about $10 million a year at Fox News Channel and stands to earn more if she stays, her desire to test the waters is understandable. She is the first breakout anchor talent in recent years, no easy feat with the TV news audience more fragmented than ever. At 45, she is younger than most other anchors on broadcast networks and cable news and probably has a long career ahead.
"It's always a very tempting situation for a talent, because they never know when the stars are going to align in this way again for them, where they have the perceived leverage," said Jonathan Klein, a veteran TV news executive who ran CNN from 2004 to 2010.
Even with lower ratings and shrinking ad revenue, networks still pay handsomely to retain the stars they develop.
Consider Matt Lauer, who was a local TV journeyman before he joined NBC's Today as a fill-in newsreader in the early 1990s. He was groomed to become the morning show's co-anchor, and over time, his popularity grew. During most of the 20 years he has led the show, Today has been No. 1 in the ratings among viewers 25 to 54, the demographic advertisers seek to reach with news programming.
NBC's audience research has found that many viewers would not watch the morning program without Lauer at the anchor desk. As a result, he earns more than $20 million a year on a program that generates about $450 million in annual ad revenue.
Fox News Channel has similarly nurtured Kelly, who joined the cable news network in 2004 with just one year of experience in local TV after a career as a corporate litigator. She honed her skills as a Washington correspondent and then as a daytime news anchor. In 2013, she was promoted to a prime-time slot with The Kelly File, which is now the second-most-watched hour in cable news behind her lead-in, The O'Reilly Factor, averaging 2.5 million viewers a night.
Kelly's value to Fox News Channel goes beyond the ratings used to sell advertising. She is part of a prime-time lineup that draws a fiercely loyal audience. Fox News Channel has rallied its devoted viewers' support when it negotiates carriage-fee increases from cable and satellite operators. The channel gets an average of $1.85 per subscriber each month from video providers, second only to ESPN.
As a proven fixture on the channel, Kelly could command up to $20 million a year in a new deal from Fox News, TV news executives and agents believe. A spokesperson for Creative Artists Agency, which represents Kelly, declined to comment.
Privately, executives at every rival TV news organization say they admire Kelly's skills as a feisty, live TV interviewer and would be happy to have her on their roster. But competitors who pursue Kelly also have to consider whether her popularity at Fox News - which many of its viewers look to as a counterbalance to a liberal-leaning or "mainstream" media - is transferable to another network.
"I don't know who wouldn't want her," Klein said. "It's just a matter of what to do with her and at what price. I think it's tougher for the broadcast networks because they just don't have the cash to spend." Klein's former employer CNN has also moved away from high-priced talent deals.
But Kelly could simply want to try something different, as evidenced by her broadcast special, which offered celebrity chats instead of the hard-charging, issue-driven interviews she does on The Kelly File. She told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview that she loves her current job, but that money won't be the only factor in deciding her future. If that is the case, more opportunities outside of Fox News will be open to her. But that's a big "if."