Ryan Seacrest on 'Live's' Hot Start, 'American Idol' Plans

Ryan Seacrest
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When viewers watch Live With Kelly and Ryan this season, it appears as though hosts Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest are sitting right next to one another — unless they happen to extend their arms too far toward the other.

Then, there's a tell: Ripa and Seacrest are really eight feet apart in the syndicated show's New York studio — where they returned in September after a spring and summer of hosting remotely — but producers use a split screen to make it look as though they're closer.

"Before we came in, they sent us a video test of this split screen that brings us together in that hybrid shot," Seacrest tells The Hollywood Reporter. If I'm being honest, I couldn't quite figure it out for the first few moments, until I looked at the way they were shooting it. That was something the producers mastered while we away, that on screen it really looks like we're together. But if we extend our arms too far they get cut off because there's that seam."

The split screen, and the hosts being in the same studio again, seems to be working. Through the first four weeks of its season, Live is the most watched talk show in syndication, averaging 2.58 million daily viewers and edging past perennial leader Dr. Phil (2.51 million) for the top spot among daytime talkers. It's running essentially even with its average from same period last year, while a number of other syndicated shows have declined.

Seacrest spoke with THR about returning to the studio, restarting his coast-to-coast American Idol travel schedule and the end of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which he executive produces, among other things.

To what do you attribute Live's strong start to the season? Are people looking for a bit of normalcy?

I guess if I knew the answer, we'd have gotten there faster. My hope is that people who tune into us each morning look forward to the camaraderie we have and the relationship we have as really, really good friends, on television but also in real life, and the kind of friendship we build with an audience who bring us into their kitchen or living room every morning. I think the frequency and the regularity of that on a show that's very, very loose and unscripted, hopefully is something people have felt they can be a part of and brings a little bit of normalcy that can allow them to escape any of the scenarios and situations they might have been in that are so unconventional.

Did you have any apprehension about going back into the studio?

I did not have apprehension about going back. I feel we're at our best when we can see each other clearly and read each other's body language. I know 50 percent of what she's thinking without her having to say it, and she feels the same way about me. That's harder to achieve when you're on a delay over Skype across the country, trying to do a live broadcast without a script.

What other adjustments did the show make? I assume you're being tested quite often?

[Ripa] and I are tested regularly, and there are very strict Disney protocols for safety, which are important. We're in New York City, and we're going in every day. There's a skeleton crew, there's no audience. So there are changes, but we've gotten used to there not being a live audience. The studio audience was always such a big part of that show, well before I was there. So I think the first handful of episodes were a little strange for us to have no audience … but considering where we were coming from, being our own IT department and [doing] very little production because we were on Skype, getting into the studio, even without an audience, is such a step up in terms of production and scale that we're enjoying it.

Were you involved in the decision to do the split screen so it looks like you're closer together?

I was completely surprised and confused when I saw that. I had no idea. I thought we were going to be seated as we are and portrayed on screen as eight feet apart. …

The new normal in our own lives is when we speak with someone in person, they're six or seven or eight feet away. Off air we've been more cognizant of that in real life, so on air it doesn't seem so abnormal — although there are times where I think to myself, I can't hear what she just said, and she probably didn't hear what I just said [laughs]. But we make the best of it.

With Idol getting started, are you back to traveling on weekends? How involved are you in the early audition shows?

I am traveling — I'll travel [Wednesday] afternoon after we finish two shows here in New York. Auditions will start in the afternoon in San Diego and I'll go right into taping through Saturday, then return to New York on Sunday for Live. It's a truncated audition city schedule this season. There are fewer locations we're going to, but we're getting to see probably a wider and greater scope of talent, because the auditions were initially held virtually where every state could participate.

The production again is going through [testing and safety] protocols, but it looks a lot more normal. The judges are spread apart, the contestants are spread apart, and I talk to them outside the door. But it looks like American Idol.

When you get to the later rounds, is the plan to go back into the studio? Will you have contestants in a bubble?

As far as I know today, the way it stands is we'll back in a studio with safety protocols, on a set that's a big scale set, most likely without an audience. Hopefully we can stay in a world and a place where we can execute that plan. I think the audience wants to see it look like a big show.

How involved were you in the decision to bring Keeping Up With the Kardashians to a close?

Kris [Jenner] and I spoke over the weekend that the decision was being made, and she had told me how difficult it was for them to come to the conclusion that something that was so magical for their family and for their brand and their businesses was probably ready for its last chapter, as least as it stood on E!. I understood it — it is a lot to ask to have cameras in your lives for 13 years. I think they knew what they were getting into, but then again, who could have imagined what it would become? I knew that day was going to come at some point, and I really believe it was a tough decision that they went back and forth about, and then I think over a Saturday night they came to the conclusion that this was the right time, being the 20th season.

Last pilot season, what seems like years ago, you and Kelly were set to executive produce an ABC pilot called Work Wife. Is that still on track to film this fall?

That's still the case, it's still on track. You're right — it feels like many moons ago.

Between Live and Idol and the pilot, you're deeply entrenched in broadcast TV. What do you see as its value at a time when everything is so fragmented and people are migrating more to streaming?

I think for me, at the top of the list is what it's delivering live right now, with live programming. That's been a key component of its value for many years, obviously, but people still go to it for live events, live sports, live shows. Where does that go in the next handful of years? It's a question we're all asking, and there are several different paths, but it's definitely going to continue to shift, and it's something we all have to prepare for.

This interview has been edited and condensed.