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Who’s the real ‘American Idol’? Ryan Seacrest

Host is styling career on that of Dick Clark
/ Source: The Associated Press

By his own admission, “American Idol” talent-show host Ryan Seacrest can’t act. He has yet to demonstrate any dancing or singing chops and is routinely bested by judge Simon Cowell in the wit department.

But as the Fox TV hit returns Jan. 17 for season five, Seacrest is among its biggest successes. With clout gained from the show, he struck a multimillion-dollar cable deal he sees as the cornerstone of a business styled on that of his own idol, Dick “American Bandstand” Clark.

If one affable host with boyish good looks and business acumen could parlay a TV hosting job into a thriving production company, why can’t another one — and this time in a sprawling new media world with more opportunities for an ambitious guy.

Fame can be enriching for the ego and bank account but has a limited shelf life. Ryan Seacrest Productions, on the other hand, has the hopeful ring of durability and real financial heft. As with, say, dick clark productions, erstwhile supplier to TV networks of movies, awards shows and more.

“When you’re hired to present a show or be on the show, you’re hired help. How long can that really last? You never know,” Seacrest, 31, told The Associated Press. “I want to show up, I want to work hard, I want to build something I have for a long time.”

That dream recently got a big push from E! Entertainment Television, which signed a three-deal aimed at giving the channel the “true star” it was lacking, said Ted Harbert, president and chief executive officer of E! Networks. It’s the biggest E! contract since Howard Stern’s more than a decade ago.

Harbert is happy to sing Seacrest’s praises as a consummate broadcaster with skills honed on radio (the national “American Top 40” and his morning show on Los Angeles station 102.7 KIIS FM) and live TV (a fill-in for CNN’s Larry King, along with “American Idol.”)

Seacrest’s Rockin’ Eve?Seacrest, Harbert said, is ready to step in as “America’s host” when Clark, 76, decides to retire. The two appeared together on ABC’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” (Clark’s first time on TV since his 2004 stroke), produced by their respective companies and ABC.

Ask Harbert about Seacrest’s business savvy and his already admiring tone swells.

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“That’s the right angle,” he responds. “He’s pretty impressive in that category, and I didn’t know that side of him.”

Harbert was educated during their contract talks, which proved to be a 1980s flashback. An executive at ABC then and working under old federal rules sharply limiting network ownership of shows, Harbert negotiated to air the American Music Awards and other Clark-produced fare.

“Over the years, every time we see each other, we laugh about the heat of the negotiations,” said Harbert. “I had deals with Dick but I never owned his production company. Frankly, that’s one of the reasons I did this (with Seacrest). I don’t want Ryan on the outside where I have to negotiate with him ... at least for another three or four years.”

Seacrest, he said, drove a hard bargain. The agreement calls for him to host and produce awards coverage on E!, to serve as managing editor and lead anchor for “E! News” and to produce other specials and series, including shows for other networks or channels.

Harbert declined to comment on reports that the E! deal is valued at $21 million, including construction of a studio.

Seacrest is attempting to join the ranks of celebrities who successfully angled to become corporate entities, with Clark and Desi Arnaz among the earliest TV examples and Oprah Winfrey among the most recent. First-season “Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson is selling millions of records; Seacrest is a partner in six restaurants and is creating a clothing line.

His one big stumble on the road to Clarksville: A short-lived syndicated TV talk show.

Pop culture expert Robert Thompson admires Seacrest’s work on “American Idol” — “He’s sarcastic enough to make it work, but sincere enough that he’s part of the cheese that holds it all together” — but thinks he’s wise to cultivate business interests.

“When you look at Ryan Seacrest overall, I think good advice would be, ’Diversify, diversify, diversify,” said Thompson, of Syracuse University.

An Atlanta native, Seacrest developed his mellow radio voice as a teenager and put it to use recording phone answering messages for his family and neighbors. Casey Kasem, whom he succeeded on “America’s Top 40,” was an early professional hero.

Seacrest fulfills his “hosting wants and needs” with the TV and radio shows. But it’s his business soul he’s bringing to fruition now, nurtured by reading (he cites Harvard’s business and marketing books and “The Tipping Point,” among others) and Clark tutorials.

“The first time I really sat and met with him behind closed doors was three or four years ago now, and I said to him, ’How do you do what you’ve done? How does one even get on that path?”’ Seacrest recalled.

“His response was, ’You can’t do exactly what I’ve done. There’s no formula.”’

Clark’s success did crystalize for Seacrest the true value of fame: “He realized every time he was on television ... it was a way to get into a meeting to sell another show.”

He treasures their work together on New Year’s Eve.

“He’s such a pro. He was smooth,” Seacrest said, managing to juggle a hectic show without a hint to viewers. “He gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said, ’Thank you for being here.”’

Dick Clark for a new ageA longtime associate of Clark’s is willing to concede some likeness between the veteran host and the upstart.

“I think Ryan’s certainly a very bright and active talent, he’s quite creative. ... He’s on his way to becoming a major player,” said Francis C. LaMaina, chief operating officer of dick clark productions.

One caveat, LaMaina said: The industry landscape may appear more inviting than it is.

“It’s a different age of television these days, tougher to control your product” because networks can own the shows that used to be the property of outside producers, he said.

The “American Idol” host also has to prove his TV value outside of the Fox series, especially given his “lackluster” talk show venture, said Stacey Lynn Koerner, an executive with media-buying firm Initiative.

“It remains to be seen whether audiences are more enchanted by the man or the program,” she said.

Seacrest is used to being called on his limits; he lets occasional descriptions like “dweeb” roll off his back. It’s only the thought of slacking off that troubles him, and drives him.

“I feel if I don’t go get it, someone else will take it. The business isn’t looking for me, they’re just looking for someone who can do it. If it wasn’t me, it would be someone else.”