One of Ryan Seacrest’s first television jobs was hosting Click, a Merv Griffin-produced syndicated kids game show that ran from 1997-98. Sometimes Seacrest would sit in on the boss’ meetings at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Griffin didn’t hold back on the advice.
“We were having lunch at a place called the Griff there,” Seacrest says. “He said, ‘Kid, I know you wanna host shows and you wanna be on the air, but take a look around you. I own this hotel. I own a lot of different things. And one of the things that you should do is own the material. Own the show and try to be as involved as possible.’”
Seacrest owns a lot of things now too. A decade ago, American Idol became the most dominant show in television—and Seacrest, by extension, became the host of the most dominant show in television. From there his sphere of influence has grown to Griffin-esque dimensions.
“I remember pretty early on someone telling me that Ryan was modeling himself after Dick Clark,” says Fox Television Group COO Joe Earley, referencing another of Seacrest’s mentors. “And I said, That’s perfect, because Dick is positive and impactful. That’s what Ryan is going to be.”
The Seacrest universe is now so vast that it touches each of the Big Four networks. He succeeded Clark at the helm of ABC’s now tortuously titled Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest. In June he struck a deal at NBCUniversal to continue hosting red carpet specials for E!, and he is producing the upcoming drama Shades of Blue—starring Idol judge Jennifer Lopez—through Ryan Seacrest Productions for NBC. In August, he cut a two-year deal for RSP’s scripted division to partner with CBS Studios. Seacrest also produces the unscripted series Shahs of Sunset for Bravo and My Transparent Life for ABC Family. And he continues to host Idol, making him the only member of the show’s original on-camera team still with the series.
Idol was the show that made Seacrest one of television’s best-known on-air hosts. But it was another show that established his bona fides as an unscripted producer.
“The big break for us in terms of production was when we met the Kardashian family, went up to their backyard barbecue, put them on tape and brought that tape back to our offices,” Seacrest says. “It was gold and magic.”
Seacrest, inspired by MTV’s The Osbournes, had been on the lookout for a family-oriented unscripted show “in the vein of The Brady Bunch.” Working with a casting director, he connected with Kardashian-family mother Kris Jenner. The tape of the family’s barbecues was the seed from which Keeping Up With the Kardashians and its spinoffs—Kourtney and Khloé Take Miami, Kourtney and Kim Take New York, Kourtney & Khloe Take the Hamptons, etc.—grew.
Seacrest and partner Bunim/Murray Productions started with the core series, then added the spinoffs so that E! could have a Kardashian show on the air close to year-round. The franchise has become central to E!’s brand. Its sustainability, according to Seacrest, is rooted in the family’s willingness to live out its life in full view of the media. (See West, Kanye.) But he acknowledges that the larger docu-soap format is subject to the same risk of viewer fatigue that threatens any popular programming genre where success attracts imitators.
“I think that we’re in a cycle where, even if you look at music performance shows, we’ve been on the air doing those kinds of shows, in this latest chapter, for almost 15 years,” he says. “I think sure, there is a saturation with some of them.”
Those looking for evidence of oversaturation in the field of big broadcast music competition shows will find no short supply. The most recent high-profile flop was ABC’s Rising Star, which failed so badly that ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee stopped short of writing off the genre this month at the TCA winter press tour, saying, “I don’t think we’ll try that for a little bit.” Then there are the ratings for Idol, whose most recent season premiered Jan. 7 to a 3.2 Nielsen live-plus-same-day rating, the worst debut in the show’s history.
But Seacrest believes there is still new ground to be broken in unscripted.
“I think we’re at a time when we need to look at each genre of unscripted,” he says. “There’s an opportunity for new ideas in the different genres, because we’ve been doing the same ones for many, many years.” Among the areas in which he sees opportunity for innovation is the live game show. Seacrest hosted an ambitious effort in that arena with NBC’s The Million Second Quiz in 2013, and is undeterred by its failure to find an audience. “There may be a great opportunity in a game. It’s just a matter of what that format might look like.”
And in a world of increased audience fragmentation, time-shifting, and digital viewing, Seacrest remains a devoted champion of the live feed.
“Live programming and live events are sport, so hopefully there’s more reason to tune in, to watch it as it’s occurring,” he says. “The only thing that I did when I started was live, because I was on the radio. So my comfort in being able to do live broadcasting on TV came from many, many years of doing live broadcasting on the radio.” Seacrest, who also took over hosting duties on radio’s American Top 40 from Casey Kasem 10 years ago, calls himself “a massive advocate of live television and live event programming,” adding, “I think we’ll continue to see more of it.”
If we do, we’ll likely see more of Seacrest, too.