"Who am I if not the 'American Idol' guy?'" asks the busiest man in showbiz as THR goes inside his fraught negotiation (a lowball offer, ABC's last-minute scramble toward an eight-figure deal), why he nearly walked away and his reinvention as a morning host. Says Kelly Ripa: "When I look at him, I see the future of this show."
In early June, Seacrest was, once and for all, out.
After 15 seasons as host of American Idol, Ryan had watched the singing competition that made him famous get canceled by Fox in April 2016 and then, after a multi-network bidding war, be revived the following May by ABC — the very company with which he had signed a giant deal to co-host the newly retitled Live With Kelly and Ryan only a few days earlier.
Almost immediately, Seacrest, who had spent the 13 months in between agonizing over the next phase of his career, had a rich offer from ABC and producer Fremantle North America to return. Sure, there would be some negotiating: He'd try to eke out more money — to move him from the $10 million range on the table to the $15 million or so he'd commanded during the show's heyday — and he'd want a say in its creative direction. But reaching an agreement with the guy Idol creator Simon Fuller calls the show's "single most important element" initially seemed like a foregone conclusion. Seacrest sat first with Fremantle's Trish Kinane and then with Disney/ABC's Ben Sherwood, swapping ideas for how to modernize a show that premiered pre-Facebook, forget Instagram or Snapchat. At one point, he even huddled with Katy Perry, encouraging the pop star to sign on as the anchor judge for the new incarnation.
The plan was to have Seacrest's deal closed in time to announce it onstage at ABC's upfront presentation in mid-May. Instead, the upfronts platform was used to announce a deal for Perry, whose traffic-stopping $25 million fee, a new talent show record, would soon leak to the press. Multiple insiders say that Fremantle, now with significantly less flexibility in its Idol budget, came back to Seacrest with an offer roughly half the size of its first. The supposed justification — that the new arrangement would require less of its famously busy host — didn't make it any less insulting. Shock quickly turned to anger: Was this what 15 years of service got him? So, on June 5, after more than a week of waiting on the network to clean up the mess, his representatives asked that Seacrest's name be withdrawn from the process. The face of one of the most transformational series of all time would say "This … is American Idol" no more.
ABC's top executives, allegedly blindsided by Fremantle's lowball offer, were sent scrambling, according to sources close to the negotiation. Within hours, Sherwood was on the phone with Seacrest, pleading for one more day to make it right. Some in the star's inner circle counseled him to let the show go. He didn't need Idol, they told him; he'd already succeeded and moved on — both figuratively and literally — with Live, which had him uproot his life to New York after two decades in Los Angeles. Seacrest had his own reservations, too, wondering whether it was the right time or the right team to reimagine the show under what inevitably would be a media microscope, and all this just as he was settling into what was supposed to be his post-Idol chapter.
Plus, the 42-year-old had been talking in recent years about a desire for more balance in his life, settling down at some point and having a family of his own. (He currently shares a townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side with his mid-20s girlfriend, Shayna Taylor.) And though Seacrest says he's made significant strides — he claims to keep two phones now: a white one for work, which he puts away once he leaves the office, and a black one for everything else — adding Idol to Live, his daily radio show and a prolific producing career that includes the Kardashian franchise would make him busier than ever. He would have to be live in L.A. on Sunday nights for Idol, then fly overnight to be back in time to go live Monday morning on Live With Kelly and Ryan and the radio.
But Idol had at least one thing going for it: Seacrest's affection. "I've always loved the show," he says in his first extensive interview since the reboot became official. "And if I could do it forever, I would do it forever." Those closest to him say that despite the personal and professional shifts, he believes his identity is still somewhat wrapped up in the show, and the idea of being replaced would destroy him.
The following day, June 6, Sherwood made good on his promise, and Seacrest got his revised offer, north of $10 million, say sources, and with a likely coveted executive producer title. At press time, he was nearing a deal to return. It would leave only one question unresolved for Seacrest, the one that had been eating at him for more than a year now: "Who am I if not the American Idol guy?"
On the evening of April 7, 2016, as a cascade of confetti fell on American Idol's 15th winner, Seacrest was standing stage left clutching his microphone. "One more time," he began, fighting back tears. "We say to you from Hollywood, good night America." And then, as 13 million television screens faded to black, he added, "For now."
By its final season, the longtime ratings and revenue juggernaut was a shell of its former self. Its audience had dropped by more than 60 percent from its peak, to an average of slightly more than 11 million an episode, saddling Fox with losses that one insider put at about $50 million in its later years. Still, Seacrest's enigmatic signoff had set social media ablaze. Those parting words, he explains now, were simply an expression of hope from a guy who owes his career to the show. "Idol was still firing on cylinders, even if it wasn't all of the cylinders of its heyday, and it still had a fan base," he says, seated in his unfinished office at Live. "So, part of me, while not having had any real conversations about it, believed that somehow, somewhere, American Idol would come back."
Implicit in that nagging question of who he is without the show is a reminder that, before Idol, Seacrest was just another college dropout paddling around Hollywood. Back in the summer of 2002, the suburban Atlanta native had an impressive drive and an unimpressive résumé: an afternoon radio slot, a slew of forgettable game shows and an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210. Then he landed a gig hosting Fox's new singing competition, and by the end of its first season, 23 million viewers were tuning in to see the goofy 20-something with frosted tips and unflappable confidence crown Kelly Clarkson the first American Idol. Though Idol would reach its peak in 2007 with a staggering 37 million viewers, it remained the highest-rated show on television for four more seasons.
By the time the show ended, Seacrest had become his own franchise, whose many facets earn him more than $50 million a year. He hosts a suite of radio shows; emcees red carpets for E! and a New Year's special for ABC; oversees a Macy's men's line and a forthcoming skin-care brand; manages endorsement deals (Coca Cola, Ford) and startup investments (Pinterest, Headspace); and, as much a modern-day Merv Griffin as he is a Dick Clark, produces a dozen TV shows through his eponymous production company. But for the first time in more than a decade, the man whose brand is predicated on his own ubiquity had no primetime presence. His name was everywhere, but not his face.
In classic Seacrest fashion, he rounded up the biggest players in Hollywood and began picking their brains. There was a visit to entertainment mogul Peter Chernin, a sit-down with iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman and a series of meals with Jeffrey Katzenberg. Nearly all of them told him the same thing: Don't rush into anything.
"When you come off a show like that, and you'd been doing it as long as he did, your natural tendency is to quickly replace it," says Pittman, whose ailing radio company pays Seacrest eight figures to serve as an on-air host as well as a chief creative adviser (with a social media footprint of 20 million, Seacrest was multiplatform before iHeart was). "But unlike most people, Ryan has this huge audience who listens to him every day on the radio — it's bigger than his audience for Idol — so people aren't forgetting about him, he isn't going away. So, I said to him, 'Take your time and wait until the right thing shows up for you; don't try to take something that somebody wants you to do for them.' "
In the months that followed, Seacrest had exploratory conversations about mounting another reality show but admits his short-lived experience on Fox's Knock Knock Live (yanked after two episodes) and NBC's Million Second Quiz (pulled after a single season) made him wary. There were brief discussions about a solo daytime talk show effort, which he'd tried and failed with once before, and a momentary flirtation with doing an NBC news show, but that didn't seem right either. Making the next move all the more complicated was Seacrest's powerful but narrow skill set: "I don't act, and I don't sing, and I don't do a lot of other things," he says. "So the question became: What will people accept me doing next?"
When the possibility of sharing hosting duties with his longtime friend Kelly Ripa on Live first arose, it seemed the most logical follow-up: It's a format he enjoys, an audience he speaks to on the radio and a partner with whom he knows he's comfortable. Plus, the show was already successful, regularly drawing more than 3 million viewers, and could boost all of his other businesses. But while he was keen to guest host following Michael Strahan's abrupt exit last spring, relocating to the East Coast was a sticking point. "I had so many walls up in my own head about my life in Los Angeles and my role in Los Angeles," he says, though with time and a lack of other clear options those walls began to come down. A stint hosting an NBC late-night show at the Summer Olympics in Rio reaffirmed just how much he enjoyed live television, so he had his reps float the idea of joining the syndicated talk show.
Ripa dismissed the notion as a pipe dream at first. She and Seacrest had tried to collaborate on other projects in the past but could never make the geography work. When he flew to New York to host a few shows in November, the pair began serious discussions about the possibility. Of greatest concern to Seacrest, and to his iHeart bosses, was whether he could be done most days by 11 a.m., which would allow him to maintain his many radio gigs, including American Top 40 and his daily syndicated show On Air With Ryan Seacrest, that give him a direct line to more than 35 million monthly listeners. The timetable would be possible, if not entirely ideal, if he zipped down to a makeshift radio studio in the bowels of WABC shortly after Live wrapped. (IHeart since has agreed to build him a studio in the Live building, which will be ready later this year.)
By the end of 2016, Seacrest had made up his mind about Live; the next step was convincing everyone else that he could pull it off. At a meeting with Sherwood and Disney CEO Bob Iger in February, he could sense Sherwood wasn't so sure. Seacrest turned to the executive and said, bluntly, "You seem skeptical."
Reminded of the exchange, Sherwood chuckles. "What Ryan caught in that moment was me trying to do the math," he says, "to figure out how you could be live on television on the East Coast and also on the radio on the West Coast at the same time, but he assured me it wouldn't be a problem, and sure enough it hasn't been." A month later, Seacrest sat with the show's executives at Manhattan's Crosby Street Hotel and sketched out a complicated yet still somehow feasible schedule (at least for him) that, in addition to the weekday hopscotch between Live and radio, also had him crisscrossing the country for iHeart and E! events on weekends.
Helping to clinch the deal was the fact that Seacrest had become Ripa's first choice. Having a say in the process is new for her, she says, and comes as part of a deal she negotiated in the wake of Strahan's messy exit. (She famously was kept out of the loop as Strahan, then her Live co-host, and ABC execs plotted his move to Good Morning America in April 2016.) It wasn't simply that Seacrest was a friend. "He's just so seamless," says Ripa, "that people don't realize that what he does is actually very, very difficult."
Still, talks dragged on as lawyers, agents and a handful of execs from a few different companies fought over Seacrest's time, priorities and compensation. "It was happening, and then it wasn't," recalls his co-host. "Ryan and I kept calling each other and saying, 'No matter what happens, we are still friends.' " In the meantime, a conga line of guest hosts — 68 in total, including more cost-efficient options like Jerry O'Connell and Fred Savage — continued to cycle through. The goal, as the show's longtime producer Michael Gelman puts it, is "a TV marriage that won't end in divorce," and that required an expansive dating phase. "We had so many amazing people throw their hat into the ring, but at a certain point you have to start making a show a show again," says Ripa, "and it was becoming a reality competition."
On Sunday, April 30, Seacrest signed his contract, and he began on Live the following morning. Strahan sent over a bottle of wine, and the show's original host, Regis Philbin, connected with Seacrest by phone: "He said to me, 'Ryan, I was most worried about doing something the night before so we had something to talk about in the first 20 minutes of the show, so just make sure you're doing something.' " Though Seacrest has heeded the advice — working his way through Manhattan's restaurant and theater scene most weeknights with Taylor — his many gigs have had him out of town nearly every weekend since he relocated earlier this spring.
Then, less than a week into Seacrest's push to establish himself as something other than "the American Idol guy," Idol came back into the picture.
On a dreary morning in late May, the eternally upbeat Seacrest is seated beside Ripa, bantering about their respective sleep issues. They take suggestions via email from viewers, but none of them — a cup of tea, some magnesium, a breathing exercise or two — seems to thrill either host. It's only once the cameras have stopped rolling that Ripa lands on one that tickles her.
"Retire," a male viewer has written in.
"I'm working on it," she laughs. "I'm working on it."
Ripa, 46, isn't going anywhere anytime soon, of course. She hasn't been this happy with her professional setup in years. "But at some point, I'd like to wind down," she says. "I'm not Ryan, I don't have his battery. So when I look at him, I see the future of this show."
The worst nightmare for Disney/ABC executives is that Seacrest adding Idol would turn into a replay of the Strahan-GMA situation. Which is why Sherwood, with WABC GM Dave Davis, reached out to Ripa before he contacted Seacrest with news that the network was considering picking up the show. "They said to me, 'Hey, we're thinking about this, what do you think?' " says Ripa, who enjoyed being in the loop and responded with enthusiasm both as an avid Idol fan and as a potential beneficiary. Though Live is a syndicated show, it airs largely on ABC stations, and a primetime win for Idol likely would carry over to a morning one for Live.
Still, the tabloids pounced, having a field day with the mere whiff of a potential Strahan redux. RadarOnline teased, "Live drama," and Page Six led with the headline: "Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest Already Off to a Rocky Start."
Though gossip columns still are relatively unfamiliar territory for Seacrest — who has managed to avoid even a hint of scandal in all of his years in the business — Ripa suggests that comes with the gig: "You get a talk show and you're yourself on the air, and people project whatever they want onto you," she says, speaking with 16 years of experience, "and there's not a shred of truth to it." Two weeks later, Seacrest was allegedly at odds with Perry. "Ryan Seacrest Mad About Katy's American Idol Paycheck," read a Page Six story.
With creative and financial questions about the show's revival, in many cases spurred by rivals, the deluge of headlines is unlikely to let up. Fox TV Group chairman Dana Walden has been the most vocal critic, voicing her frustration in mid-May about the show moving elsewhere so soon after Fox spent $25 million touting its final season. (That didn't stop her from making an offer, however.) CBS CEO Leslie Moonves has been similarly dismissive: "The price is so expensive, you need a 35 share to break even," he told reporters. "I'm not trying to knock ABC, [but] the economics made no sense for us." And And though NBC executives have kept quiet in the press, after flirting with the idea of acquiring Idol, they've instead opted to pour even more money into its chief competitor, The Voice. Already, they have ratcheted up the arms race for talent, announcing deals with Idol alumnae Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson within days of the ABC news.
Adding to the general sense of uncertainty is that many of the key players from Idol's original run, including creator Fuller, judge Simon Cowell and producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, are not currently involved in the reboot. Fuller, who's remained close with Seacrest, says he's been disheartened by a "series of missteps" in the development process, arguing that signing the show's longtime host should have been the very first move. But none of it will matter, he adds, if the new team can establish a strong vision. And ABC does have one clear advantage: the sheer force by which the entire Walt Disney Co. — channels, theme parks, resorts and digital entities — can and will get behind the revival.
The network's plan is to launch out of the Oscars in March, with auditions set to begin in mid-August. In addition to a 19-city tour, the refreshed Idol also will scout on social media platforms from Instagram to video sharing site Musical.ly. And though there's been little movement on the other judges accompanying Perry (names like Luke Bryan have been floated), adding Seacrest as host would provide another obvious piece of corporate synergy, one of many reasons Sherwood is itching to get a deal done. Idol was not yet on his radar when he was making Seacrest's pact for Live, but his plan always has been the same: "We want Ryan to be a master of all things live for us," he says, "in the way that Regis Philbin was for many years here."
Like most people who get into business with Seacrest, Sherwood has aspirations for other onscreen and offscreen collaborations as well. That eagerness on Seacrest's part to keep adding to his already full plate is one of the qualities that Katzenberg says he likes most about him and is one that they often bond over during their regularly scheduled dinners. "For Ryan and me, work is happiness," he says. "And the more work we have, the happier we are."
Seacrest takes a stab at explaining it another way: "I've figured out what I'm better at and what I'm not so good at, and I'm doing the things that I'm better at. The things that I'm not so good at would make me tired and would make me want to slow down." But at the suggestion that adding Idol makes his plate more full than it's ever been, he flashes that former Crest spokesman smile: "I know," he says. "I never thought that would be possible." And then he darts out the door, down five floors and into a waiting Mercedes, off to his next engagement.
This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.