Rio Olympics: Ryan Seacrest Talks Security Concerns, Late-Night Show and 'American Idol's' Future

NBC's late-night Olympics host addresses the doom and gloom headlines surrounding the Games along with the 'Idol' memento he took from the set and his plans to do more live TV.
Courtesy of Ryan Seacrest Productions
Ryan Seacrest

Ryan Seacrest is days away from adding late-night host to his already crowded résumé. 

Beginning Saturday, the longtime American Idol host will debut his informally titled Olympic Late Night show, live from Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For two consecutive weeks, the hourlong entry will close out NBC’s day of coverage, with Seacrest interviewing athletes, recapping with experts and attempting to infuse some lighter lifestyle segments into the network’s coverage of the Games. "It won’t be quite as formal as the other broadcasts, which is fantastic for me,” he says by phone, "and you’ll get a little bit of everything.”

Having touched down this past weekend, Seacrest has spent the past few days familiarizing himself with Rio — with help from supermodels and Brazil natives Alessandra Ambrosio and Adriana Lima — and studying up on the many athletes poised to compete. On Wednesday, he took a break from both to discuss the drumbeat of negative headlines surrounding the Games, the big “gets" when it comes Olympic interviews and his unfiltered thoughts on the future of Idol — and yes, he does believe there's a future.

The headlines stateside are largely tales of crime, the Zika virus, severely polluted water and body parts washing up on the beach where you’re shooting your show …

If I didn’t read the headlines sent to me from the U.S., I wouldn’t know any of that.

How about the police presence?

The police presence and the troop presence is very visible. I’ve gone for these great runs on the beach, and you can’t go a block without seeing some sort of presence of police or military, so you feel incredibly safe. People are out at 6 a.m. on the path exercising through sunset. It’s really been very pleasant.

So, the headlines and concerns are a bit overblown?

I’m not saying that. Obviously they’re not making that up — there are things that are of concern, but from where I have been and the things that I’ve done, I haven’t been exposed to any of it other than the security.

You’re going to be doing a late-night show each night. What can you reveal about the format?

We’ll be broadcasting live from Copacabana Beach, and the set is built on the sand. The waves have been so big that they’ve been close to crashing on the set, which could be fun. [We’re not hoping for] them to hit the cameras, of course, but the tide has been coming in pretty strong and it makes for a beautiful backdrop. As for the format, it will vary depending on the action that happens during the day and what is broadcast during the day on NBC. We’ll have athletes come by live to talk about things that are upcoming for them or, if they have medals, after to talk about some of their action. We’ll be able to run back some of the events of the day that perhaps didn’t run in primetime. The premise is to let it be a little looser than you might see earlier, and you’ll get a little bit of everything.

You flew to Rio with a three-ring binder full of background material on the events and athletes competing, but I don’t imagine you’ve gained Bob Costas’ expertise just yet. Is that of concern or is that not necessary to do a show like this?

What’s great about the Olympics is that they’re about sports, but they’re also about people’s stories. I love to talk to people about their stories, whether it’s in sports, entertainment or everyday life. It’s still about how did they get here, how did they do and where are they going — that’s the foundation of any great conversation with someone about their story. So, I’m approaching it from that point of view. Obviously, I have a ton of material to read, too, and I’m also working with an incredible staff. I’m not used to having this many people working for me.

I assume you’ll also call on NBC’s stable of on-air experts when it comes to specific events?

Of course. If something happens in any event that we want to recap or rehash or highlight in the live show, we’ve got someone who can come in and talk stats and details.

What will your day-to-day entail? Will you physically attend any of the events?

I’m not scheduled to go to any at this point because I’m doing the radio show at 10 a.m. our time into the afternoon and then I’ll probably work out and then go down to our set and watch the NBC feed. I hope to get to some of the events though but, for the most part, I’ll be watching what America is watching through a feed on NBC. I guess I’m going to see how it all goes. Remember, I’m not used to being up that late. I’m trying to figure out how this is going to play on my body because we don’t get off the air until 2:30 a.m. local time. I’ve seen that hour on a Friday or Saturday, not so much on a Tuesday (laughs).

Going in, what are the narratives that excite you most?  

Well, you’ve got the [Michael] Phelps story: retirement and then coming back. And I sit down with the women’s gymnastics team live on primetime with Bob Costas [Thursday night's preview special]. They’re a fantastic story. Those are big stories, and then there are the things that you can’t predict because this is live sports.

I don’t imagine you’ll be coming out with a traditional late-night monologue, but I’m curious if you got any advice from your pal Jimmy Fallon, who has plenty of experience doing an NBC late-night show?

You are right there (laughs). This is not a late-night comedy show, it’s the late-night hour of NBC’s Olympic coverage. Because of the hour and the fact that there’s not as much going on, we can have a little more fun with it. Like, we may cover the trampoline event just because it’s fun. We’ll look for things like that. As for Jimmy, he and I spoke briefly and I think he’s psyched about getting a little breather. (The Tonight Show will be dark during the Olympics.)

Back up for a second — is there really a trampoline event?

Oh yeah. I’ll have trampoline for you every night (laughs).

The London Olympics were your first foray into sports. What did you learn from that experience that you’re applying here?

I had never worked in the sports division with this group of experts who had done this all of their lives, so I was taking everything very, very seriously. Not that I’m not now, too, but I didn’t quite know how I was going to do. What I learned is that the Games are not just for a specific demographic, the Games are for everybody. This is really family viewing, it’s an all-call. So I hope we can connect with everybody. One of the great things about Idol over the years is that it was appointment viewing for everybody, especially in the first 10 years.

Speaking of American Idol, for which you earned your 12th Emmy nomination as host, this is the first August where you’re not off for auditions. Which part of the show do you miss the most?

The people. You used to go away for summer break but you knew the school season would start again and you’d get to rekindle with all of these people whom you were really close to and who were really close to you. This time we got summer break but I won't get to see these people in homeroom again. That’s the bittersweet part of it. In terms of realizing that it’s truly gone, I don't know that it’ll kick in until we’re not on the air anymore. But I have the judges’ desk, they gave me that, so I can sit and play at home.

That's great. Where do you keep it?

It’s my garage right now. but I might make a bar out of it for the game room. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Your Idol finale signoff — “Good night, America … for now” — got a lot of attention. What did you mean exactly?

There’s nothing that has officially happened or was happening officially that inspired me to say that. I just personally felt like saying it — and I felt like with a brand like American Idol, I have a hard time believing it’s gone forever. I don’t know in what capacity and on what platform it could be reimagined, but it seems to me that at some point a reimagination of the franchise would be a likely pursuit.

Creator Simon Fuller seems to agree. He told Billboard that “there will no doubt be another format or refinement or elevation of the format” after he and the show has a chance to catch their breath. That said, did you have any sense for the frenzy or hoopla those two words you uttered would generate?

I didn’t think through the hoopla of it, I just thought of saying it right at the last second so that no one could come out and say anything to me afterward.

Or come out before and tell you not to say it?

Or before and not to, right (laughs).

If Idol were to come back in another iteration, would you want to be a part of it?

Absolutely. I’m grateful for what that show has done for me personally and professionally, so without a doubt I’d love to be part of whatever exists. As a host, as a producer, as both — whatever role seems to be the one that they’re enthusiastic about and fits the bill.

In your eyes, did it end at the right time?

I do think it did. Look, to have 15 years of a show is an incredible run. Simon Fuller makes a good point: Give it a break, let the world and our industry evolve — technology is changing things by the day — and then let’s see where we are in a year and how it fits into popular culture.

You’ve had more downtime than usual since Idol wrapped. What have you done that you’ve not had time to do in the past 15 years?

I’ve had time to think. Over the last decade, I’ve been sprinting from role to role to role and I loved that pace, but it’s been nice to walk a little and not run. What I’ve realized when I’ve stepped back and had that time to think is that I love broadcasting, I love live programming. So I want to focus on the Olympics now and then when I get back home I’ll sit down and really look at what possibilities and opportunities I’m going to pursue [in that space] in the following year.

Is sitting beside Kelly Ripa, whom you’ve co-hosted Live with, something you’d want to do full-time? Or are you talking about emceeing another reality show?

On the most basic level, anything that is live excites me. I guess that’s the point of entry for me when I start to think about things.

One allows you the breadth to be more yourself, while the other is about driving a game. Looking ahead, is one genre preferable to the other?

I like both. I like being part of a format and driving a contest and I always love being able to sit and talk to people and interview various celebrities and artists. Fortunately, I’ve gotten the chance to do a little bit of everything with Idol and my radio show, but I can’t say one is more interesting to me than the other. Hopefully I’ll be able to do both.

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