Though best known as the host of the still very popular "American Idol"… (Matt Sayles / Associated…)
As the gap between pop culture and the culture writ large seems to narrow with each passing day, the possible ascendancy of Ryan Seacrest to a plum network news assignment marks another notable watershed. Can a purveyor of Top 40 radio and the next singing sensation (not to mention another round of Coke) on "American Idol" command the television stage in a national crisis?
That's just one of the questions making the rounds inside NBC headquarters at Rockefeller Center in New York, where executives are said to be discussing whether to make Seacrest the next host of the "Today" show. The talks have been kept under tight wraps but NBC Broadcasting Chairman Ted Harbert has made it clear that he thinks the versatile Seacrest is capable of making the switch to what was once known as a news show, sources said.
"There is a huge inner-office battle going on right now about what the 'Today' show is going to be next," said one executive, who is closely familiar with the program but asked not to be named while discussing internal machinations at NBC. "There is still an old guard who remember when the show set the news agenda, before 24/7 news. NBC News was the thing."
"Today" has long been more than a news program, shifting like other morning shows to a melange of features and entertainment amid a convivial "family" of on-set personalities. That mix is viewed as key to luring, and holding, a mostly female audience.
Matt Lauer has been acclaimed as a master of the form, but people close to him say that as he nears his 15th anniversary on the show (Jan. 6), he is determined to leave "Today" when his contract expires late next year.
That presents a dilemma for leaders at NBC because Lauer is tremendously popular and deemed responsible for keeping the show ahead of the competition, albeit with ABC's "Good Morning America" substantially narrowing the ratings gap in recent months.
ABC announced Tuesday that George Stephanopoulos would continue as host of "GMA," even as he takes on the additional responsibility of heading the network's Sunday program, "This Week," where he will replace Christiane Amanpour, who is returning to field reporting for both ABC and CNN.
With Seacrest, NBC would then seem to have a news team with considerably less heft. But even with the possible hire, the network would be expected to rely heavily on longtime anchors Ann Curry, who replaced Meredith Vieira as co-host this summer, and Natalie Morales when it came to big breaking news events.
The success of "Today" is of no small concern to NBC and its new corporate parent, Comcast. Even in an era of fragmenting audiences and atomized ad revenue, the show brings in about $500 million a year.
Broadcasting boss Harbert is known to be a big fan of Seacrest, who turns 37 on Christmas Eve. Though best known as the host of the still very popular "American Idol" on Fox, he also runs a four-hour morning radio show and produces a slew of reality shows, including all the Kardashian fare on the E! network.
Harbert previously ran E! Entertainment, another Comcast property, and is said to be keen on keeping Seacrest happy, lest he flee to some competitor. Seacrest is believed to be intent on continuing to expand his brand, possibly by joining a program that still retains a significant dollop of news, even with meals that are now mostly lighter fare.
Some morning television analysts contend that the hiring of Seacrest would not be as much of a departure as some news purists suggest. In the 1950s, founding "Today" host Dave Garroway had a chimpanzee "co-host," and subsequent winners in the a.m. spot "have realized that [viewers] wanted warmth and personality, along with content," said Dan Wilch, an authority on daytime TV for the media research and consulting firm Frank Magid Associates.
NBC took hits from critics in 1997, when it brought on Lauer — previously a local news and interview host — as star of "Today." He, too, was considered too "lite" for the network position. But Wilch noted how Lauer developed an "incredible chemistry" with Katie Couric and how the show set itself apart with "event" programming — such as a live wedding and the whimsical "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer" feature.
"The key in the morning is range — and we have yet to see whether Ryan has that, but his success in everything he has ever done suggests he's a good gamble," Wilch said via email. The consultant said that news is coming from so many sources today that "the point of differentiation comes in execution and that's all about hosts."
But critics say something other than the verities of the market should matter. "As silly as 'Today' can be, it also occasionally calls for a little gravitas," wrote Richard Lawson in the Atlantic Wire. "Lauer was live on air for a long time the morning of 9/11 and handled it as best as a jarred morning show host could. Can anyone really imagine Ryan Seacrest doing the same thing?"