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Image: Ryan Seacrest
Patrick Ecclesine  /  AP file
"American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest has a good shot at winning an Emmy Award for best reality TV host thanks in large part to the popularity of the Fox series.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/18/2008 10:57:09 AM ET 2008-09-18T14:57:09
COMMENTARY

This year, for the first time in its history, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will award a prime-time Emmy to the best reality TV show host. Considering that hosts have been an integral part of many unscripted programs, they absolutely deserve recognition — and they'll get it, as the nominees will have to work, collectively hosting the telecast Sunday night.

In a time when reality show hosting is filled with personality-deficient talking heads being commanded by off-screen producers, all five nominated hosts are talented. Still, four of the five have vastly different roles because, just as during the early years of the other reality TV-related categories, the Academy hasn't yet figured out the category's parameters.

There are five completely different hosts up for the award: Ryan Seacrest, who emcees "American Idol"; Jeff Probst, who guides the "Survivor" cast on CBS; Heidi Klum, who judges Bravo's "Project Runway"; Tom Bergeron, who cracks jokes on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars"; and Howie Mandel, who's a primetime game-show host on NBC's "Deal or No Deal."

Only Bergeron and Seacrest host series that are even in the same genre of reality program, the live talent competition, and they're both masterful at coordinating live proceedings. However, as the person who defined what it means to host a reality show, Jeff Probst is the most deserving of the first win in the category. He demonstrates multiple hosting strengths: he's the Tribal Council inquisitor, challenge color commentator, and viewers' constant liaison all in one.

Image: Jeff Probst
AP file
Jeff Probst.
Still, Seacrest is probably more likely to win, since he hosts the most popular show in the country, and is the most blandly accessible. After all, those voting are the people who decided an aging "West Wing" was the best drama on TV four years in a row despite its being nominated against "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," and even "CSI."

The other three are much less likely to walk away with the statuette. Bergeron's occasionally bawdy wit, never mind that he works with a co-host, will probably send voters elsewhere. Mandel keeps his show moving but isn't really working in the same medium as the others (although Emmy voters may not realize that). And while she's on cable's most high-profile reality show, Heidi Klum's hosting consists of repeating essentially the same lines every week. It's in her unflinching judging that she really shines, not as host.

Image: Tom Bergeron
AP file
Tom Bergeron.
The category may have imperfect membership — it's inexplicable how Mandel received a nomination and witty "Amazing Race" host Phil Keoghan did not — but its inclusion is long overdue, however imperfect the nominees or winner may be.

So many shows, so many bad hosts
Perhaps more significantly, the Emmy will be presented to one of the five hosts right when their collective craft is in a bit of a crisis.

With networks hurling new competition series onto their schedules, producers need to find talented, capable people to serve as ringmaster. Unfortunately, it seems that those people are already employed, and thus people who should not be fronting prime-time network or cable series still end up in those roles.

Image: Howie Mandel
AP file
Howie Mandel.
Those aren't the so-bad-they're-perfect hosts, such as "Bachelor" host Chris Harrison, who's a glorified butler mostly in charge of reading increasingly absurd teases, or "Big Brother" host Julie Chen, whose robotic hosting earned her the nickname Chenbot. And there are plenty of fantastic hosts on TV, strong personalities such as Mike Rowe on "Dirty Jobs" and Paige Davis on "Trading Spaces."

The bad hosts tend to show up on series airing on niche-based cable networks or on short-lived broadcast shows, such as Fox's "On the Lot," which was hosted by Adrianna Costa with too many hand gestures and not enough personality. Some shows survive crappy hosts by discarding them, as Bravo's "Top Chef" did, replacing awkward first-season host Katie Lee Joel with the far more affable and dynamic Padma Lakshmi.

Image: Heidi Klum
Getty Images file
Heidi Klum.
But television has apparently run out of hosts who aren't operated like robots, literally.

Watch those awkward hosts closely — especially on cable — and you may see a small wireless IFB earpiece (it resembles a hearing aid) coming out of one ear, particularly the one that's most often not facing the camera.

That's a sign that the host is being led and told what to do by producers, which is mostly surprising considering how bad they are even with the earpiece. Among those weak hosts wearing visible earpieces on recent or currently-airing series are Jai Rodriguez on Animal Planet's competition "Groomer Has It," Rene Fris on Bravo's "Shear Genius," Phillip Bloch on VH1's "Glam God," and Tabatha Coffey on Bravo's "Tabatha's Salon Takeover."

Of course, excellent hosts like those nominated for Emmys work closely with show producers, or even are producers on their own shows. But they're capable of improvising, managing, and working on their own, and don't need to be operated like a puppet by a producer.

J.D. Roth, the executive producer of shows such as NBC's "Biggest Loser" and The CW's "Beauty and the Geek," is one of those producers who's dealt with such hosts. His face and voice are probably familiar because he hosts or narrates many of the shows his company produces, including Fox's "Unan1mous" and Discovery Kids' "Endurance."

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He does that because "there's no better way as a producer to control what's going on on your set than to be in front of it,"

Roth told me in July. "A lot of hosts now, they wear the earpiece, and I have to sit back there, and they become robo-host, and I gotta talk to them, and everything that comes out of my mouth comes out of theirs."

As a result, he's hosting ABC's forthcoming hybrid game and reality show "Opportunity Knocks," because having a "robo-host" involves "a delay ... that this show can't afford to take. This is an in-the-moment show; it's not a cue card show," he said.

"People don't realize that hosting is a muscle, and if you have a lot of live experience," Roth said. "A lot of hosts just think, hey, it's no problem, you put on the jacket, you go out there with a mic in your hand and you become Bob Barker. And that's not how it works. It takes years and years. It's a craft, just like acting is."

It's a craft that will soon be formally acknowledged by the television industry. But like acting, it's a field increasingly crowded with talent-starved people, and reality TV already has enough of those.

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