Ryan Seacrest, The New King of Reality TV

 Frank w. Ockenfels 3

Last year, before the NBCUniversal-Comcast merger was finalized, Ryan Seacrest’s Los Angeles office had become an entertainment war room, with the tireless mogul plotting, if not exactly a takeover, at least a strategy by which his empire would expand.

On a dry-erase board, the most famous public face of Comcast (through its E! network) had listed in one column the many new NBCU channels — NBC, Bravo, USA — that would be more closely available to him post-merger. In another went Comcast’s collection of networks, from E! to G4, a visual reminder of every place where he could sell, repurpose or have a presence once the marriage was complete.

Now, two months after the merger closed, that board is gone, replaced by a Precor elliptical machine. And Seacrest, amid the shake-up and pawn-shuffling, is a beneficiary of the spoils. On this March day, in those same Wilshire Boulevard offices, the host, 36, explains with boyish excitement how synergy — that oft-used, harder-to-execute corporate concept — is at work.

PHOTOS: Ryan Seacrest's eclectic career

It was evident the evening of the Academy Awards, when he interrupted his red-carpet duties on E! to plug a Today show interview with Charlie Sheen airing the following morning. He has already met with the new executive team, from NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke to Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment. And this month, the newly merged company will turn to Seacrest to play a key role in its coverage of the royal wedding for its combined assets, from E! News to Today. (At press time, efforts to get him from a live episode of American Idol in Los Angeles on a Thursday night to the nuptials in London on a Friday were proving insurmountable.) He acknowledges he likes the prospect of appearing more frequently on Today. “I’m kind of going into this merger saying: ‘Hey, what do you got? What can we do? Yes. Let’s go,’ ” Seacrest says.

Burke, who previously served as Comcast’s COO, couldn’t be happier. “It is rare to find someone who excels both in front of and behind the camera, but that certainly applies to Ryan,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He’s been a big part of E!’s success in recent years both on-air and as a producer, and we are pleased to be in business with him.”

Indeed, in a universe where many outsiders ask, “What does this man do to earn more than $55 million a year?” — after all, he doesn’t act, sing or dance — Seacrest has the industry wondering, what does he not do? An enviable hybrid of on-air personality and behind-the-scenes powerhouse, Seacrest is omnipresent. He begins his day on the radio and ends it on TV, both in front of the camera (on Idol) and behind it (with the Kardashians). In between, he graces red carpets, films E! News and doles out frequent updates to his 4.2 million Twitter followers.

The area where he is most dominant, however, is reality TV, a genre in which he is beyond measure the most powerful person in Hollywood. While there are bigger stars in the medium and producers with more shows, there is no one whose brand is broader in reach or more impactful at the watercooler than his. Whether you think the kinds of shows he does are worthy of celebration (some would decry his appallingly addictive Kardashian franchise as the end of Western civilization), the fact is, his programming occupies as many as five hours a week and is watched by more than 35 million viewers (if you count Idol). And in a TV genre where influence is built around an ability to get people talking, what is more powerful than ubiquity?

On this day, he leaps to his feet to grab a packet of papers from his desk that lists his many TV projects. For this minute, he is Ryan Seacrest the Producer, the big boss of some 40 staffers at Ryan Seacrest Productions. He rattles off seven unscripted series on or near airing, including the Emmy-winning Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (ABC), The Dance Scene centering on Lady Gaga’s choreographer (E!), I Kid hosted by Brad Garrett (TLC) and, of course, four incarnations of the Kardashian franchise.

The latter not only has proved a consistent ratings driver for E! (the most recent Keeping Up With the Kardashians season averaged 3.5 million viewers) but also spawned ancillary revenue streams that helped the Kardashian family earn $65 million in 2010. Seacrest admits he has had conversations about a spin-off with Kylie and Kendall Jenner, the youngest teen daughters in the Kardashian brood. “As soon as they can get their work permits,” he laughs, likely only half-kidding.

Seacrest has another 19 projects in development and nine more being considered. They range from game shows to docuseries, and he smiles at the mention of each of them. Unlike many brand-name producers who slap their names on series and walk away, Seacrest is famous for his involvement in every stage, from casting to tone to the music in his shows.

“This is not someone who just delegates away,” says NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment chairwoman Bonnie Hammer. “Ryan is someone who really gets his hands dirty.”

At his core, Seacrest is an avid consumer and purveyor of popular culture, someone who can set a trend or know when to jump on one in progress. “Ryan absolutely has his finger on the pulse because he’s talking to America every day through his radio show,” Idol creator Simon Fuller says of Seacrest’s direct connection to his audience. “He knows what people are thinking about, and as a producer that really gives him a leg up.” He regularly sifts through and communicates with his Twitter followers with the same goal in mind. “I work best inundated with things,” Seacrest says, “when it’s like raining information.”

One thing raining on him at E! is the inevitability of a new boss (Ted Harbert was reassigned post-merger; a search is under way for a replacement). Ever facile, he says, “We’re anticipating that there will be more interest in scripted at E! [under Hammer] and from the other networks now that they are in the family, so we have put some focus on scripted.” (Hammer confirms to THR that scripted will indeed be part of the network’s next phase, and Seacrest’s contributions will be welcomed.) Although he’s not ready to unveil details, he has two scripted projects in development and a third in the works with Harvey Weinstein.

He’s also courting Hollywood talent who might have a kernel of an idea but not the development or production resources to turn it into a show. RSP recently played that role for Tobey Maguire; the actor came in with a concept, which the RSP development team worked into a series and sold. The specifics are being kept under wraps, but Seacrest insists there’s more where that came from.

Those relationships are among the reasons E! president of entertainment programming Lisa Berger says she loves having Seacrest in the fold. “He is so keyed in to the community,” she explains, “and he knows exactly who will make great talent for our network.”

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Seacrest has been prepping for his role as media ringmaster since he was a child in suburban Atlanta. He spent much of his upbringing enamored of the radio — listening, imitating and dreaming of a future in the medium. By the time he hit high school, the son of a lawyer father and homemaker mother had landed an internship at a radio station that he parlayed into his own show.

At 19, Seacrest dropped out of the University of Georgia to pursue a broadcasting career in Hollywood. In those early years, he adopted a “just say yes” philosophy, working the graveyard shift, driving the vans, whatever it took. Within three years, he was juggling a radio show and segments of The New Edge on what was then Sci Fi Channel. Hammer, an executive at the network at the time (now Syfy, it remains under her purview), remembers being impressed by Seacrest. “You looked at him and listened to him, and you knew even back then that this was a star in the making,” she says.

By 1997, Seacrest had nabbed a hosting gig on a teen-centric game show Click. The opportunity to work for legendary producer Merv Griffin would change his life. The Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune creator taught him the significance of owning and then exploiting content across multiple media channels, a skill Seacrest has now mastered. More than a decade later, Griffin’s picture hangs outside his office, a reminder of what Seacrest has left to accomplish.

The past decade has played out on a national stage, beginning with the ultimate springboard, American Idol, which premiered in 2002. In the years since, he has filled out his portfolio with a morning radio show and American Top 40, red carpet interviews, holiday specials, celebrity news and brand partnerships with Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft’s Bing. Missteps included a 2004 syndicated talk show, On-Air With Ryan Seacrest, which failed to earn a second season.

Heading into this year, the future of Seacrest’s biggest platform, Idol, was in question. With series linchpin Simon Cowell opting to move on after nine seasons, by all accounts the wind had been taken out of the sails of TV’s No. 1 show. But a funny thing happened on the way to Season 10: Viewers showed up — and not just to get a glimpse of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler at the judges’ table. This season, the singing competition is averaging 25 million viewers, retaining 100 percent of its viewership from the same period last year.

To hear Fuller tell it, it is Seacrest who deserves much of the credit. “He’s the unsung hero of American Idol,” gushes Fuller, who praises the ease with which Seacrest carries the live show, comparing him as many do to legends like Dick Clark. “Ryan is one person I would not want to lose.”

Yet Idol remains just a sliver — albeit a lucrative and noisy sliver — of Seacrest Inc. These days, the host has bigger ambitions, with such moguls as Griffin, Jerry Bruckheimer and Jeffrey Katzenberg listed among his heroes. “It’s all of those people who have taken something, built an organization and grown it over the years,” he says of his personal idols. “That’s what drives me.”

To that end, Seacrest is exploring other verticals. His latest deal with Clear Channel, which was valued at roughly $20 million a year when he signed it in November, has him at work on a collection of new ventures, including a concert series that is likely to mirror the multiple-act Jingle Ball model. Seacrest will be involved in the early planning stages and then on hand to host, attend or help book talent. When asked if there will be a TV component to these concerts, he says he isn’t sure. Then he acknowledges what has become obvious to anyone who follows him. “There’s a TV element to everything in my eyes,” he says.

Meanwhile, he’s setting up a music publishing deal at RSP so that the company can own the music — and save big on rights fees — that appears in his shows. As he sees it, finding original music (vocal or otherwise) and signing talent will free up his budget to put more onscreen. His mornings spent curating a radio show that books the industry’s newest acts should feed into this nicely.

Seacrest envisions being a one-stop shopping destination for brands, too. He and his RSP executives are starting to take meetings with companies like Coca-Cola about creating shows together. Much as they did with Maguire, they will hear rough ideas or more about the audience that the company in question is after and then flesh them out into potential TV series.

He has plans to dabble in film as well. Though he’s mum on specifics, Seacrest says he has sold a film and has another one in development. He’s quick to admit that this is one genre in which he’s no expert, which is why he will partner with larger Hollywood production companies on what he labels “commercial movies.”

Finally, there’s his hush-hush cable network. Seacrest says the idea is “still very active,” and he will be a partner in it if the team, which includes CAA and live entertainment giant AEG, can get it on the air. While he intends to contribute content (likely from RSP), he is adamant that it will not be the Ryan Seacrest Channel. “It will not be branded with my name or my face,” he says.

And why would it? That would require the man with Clark’s presence and Griffin’s ambitions to narrow his focus to a single project — a tall task for someone who has likened himself to a maitre d’ in a restaurant of popular culture.

Today, he selects a football analogy, comparing himself to someone playing offense, defense and special teams all in the same game. But to know Seacrest is to know he’d have it no other way. “I don’t know if you noticed,” his lips widen into a smile, “but I don’t do well sitting in one place.”             

SEACREST'S 360° MEDIA UNIVERSE: The Idol host, morning DJ and prolific producer has a hand in every platform and shrewdly uses one to promote the other

Ryan Seacrest Productions

  • Kardashian shows: Miami, New York, Keeping Up and the upcoming Khloe and Lamar
  • Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (ABC)
  • The Dance Scene (premiering on E!)
  • I Kid hosted by Brad Garrett (premiering on TLC)
  • Co-host and managing editor for E! News

The longtime face of Comcast Entertainment has plans to expand both his reach and his empire post-merger. Among those efforts: 19 shows in development.

CKX Deal

  • American Idol

Seacrest signed a three-year, $45 million contract to continue hosting TV’s No. 1 show in 2009, making him the top-earning reality host.

Brand Partnerships

  • Procter & Gamble
  • Coca-Cola
  • Microsoft

Seacrest famously pushes brands like Microsoft’s Bing across multiple channels, from his radio show to his website to his 4.2 million-member Twitter following.

Radio

  • On Air with Ryan Seacrest
  • American Top 40

Seacrest’s expansive new deal with Clear Channel pays music’s No. 1 host roughly $20 million per year. He regularly reaches more than 20 million weekly listeners worldwide.

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