Jan. 6, 2012 at 9:35 AM ET
Ryan Seacrest enters his eleventh season as “American Idol” host with an uncertain future with the program he helped to become ratings gold. His three-year contract is about to expire, and rumor is that it's apparently been decided that if the show can survive the departure of Simon Cowell, it also can save a few bucks by doing without a big-budget host.
Considering that Seacrest makes a reported $15 million a year, there are definitely cheaper options (for the record, I’m available and would do it for half the price). But this has the potential to become a legendary example of a business failing to recognize the value of the talent on hand and allowing its product to decay by doing things on the cheap.
First of all, the host “Idol” has now is the best option on the table as far as talent is concerned. Seacrest is the best music- and variety-show host of his generation, and arguably the best since Dick Clark and “American Bandstand.” It’s no accident that he’s alongside Clark on New Year’s Eve these days; it’s a mantle he clearly embraces.
Being a host is not just a matter of showing up, reading the teleprompter and listening to the producers in your ear yelling about ending the show on time, as anyone would know who's seen Steve Jones’ herky-jerky awkwardness on “X Factor.” Though Seacrest sometimes inserts himself into the spotlight more than he should, for the most part he has an innate sense of when to take center stage and when to simply serve as the foil for the judges and the contestants. As a general rule, he’s cajoling rather than confrontational, and can drive the show along without making it obvious when he’s turning the wheel.
Moreover, he's an essential part of the “American Idol” brand. He’s both closely associated with the show and ubiquitous on television even after the finale. Whether viewers hear him on his radio show, see him on the red carpet, reading the entertainment news on “E” or whatever else he’s doing this week, his very presence makes people think of it.
His association with “American Idol” means constant exposure for the show, something that no other similar singing program has. “The Voice” goes off the air, and nobody thinks about it again until NBC starts running promos for the new season. “America’s Got Talent” has to roll the dice and hire Howard Stern to get any buzz at all. “American Idol” finishes for the year, and fans can’t go 24 hours without hearing Seacrest’s voice and being reminded of it. How much is that constant buzz worth?
Finally, he’s likable. That’s essential. He’s the guy that the viewers spend the most time with, from the first audition to the final episode, and the show succeeds so well in part because he’s a pleasant person to watch on TV. Even when the singers are terrible and the judges seem to be competing to offer the most over-the-top meaningless compliments, he can keep everything running smoothly.
It’s true that the show survived the departure of Simon. It’s also true that the year after he left, J.Lo was named the World’s Most Beautiful woman by People magazine and Steven Tyler came out with a new autobiography and blew a breath of fresh air into the franchise. This season will show how sustainable that momentum is.
But that doesn’t mean the producers should get too cocky. “American Idol’s” success has spawned a host of imitators, to the point where there isn’t a day that goes by where there’s not some sort of singing show on TV. In an era where viewer fatigue seems to be taking hold, “Idol” has been immune, and some of the credit for that goes to the host.
Obviously, I’m not privy to the negotiations. There’s a salary at which keeping Seacrest doesn’t make financial sense. But “American Idol” is such a valuable brand that it’s foolish to risk it all just to save some money from a show that rakes in so much it practically prints its own. Pushing for a new host might cost the show a lot more than they’d save on his replacement.
Do you think Seacrest is vital to the success of "Idol"? Or is it time to let him go and try someone new? Tell us what you think on our Facebook page!