Awards Show Host Shortage

Recent flameouts are sending shivers through the talent pool as the Emmys host gig becomes the riskiest job on TV.

The TV academy faces an all-but-impossible challenge this year: Finding a host for the Emmys in a year littered with hosting debacles. No surprise. Top talents are running scared after the flameouts of Golden Globes toastmaster Ricky Gervais and Oscar hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway. Also, the gig can't pay much, it takes weeks to pull off, and career backlash can be permanent. When we asked academy chair John Shaffner who's on the shortlist to host the Fox telecast, he asked us, "Who do you think would be good?"

Good question. Well, last year's emcee, Jimmy Fallon, would seem like an obvious candidate -- but his reps say he hasn't yet been approached for an encore. Too bad: "Fallon opening up with a Glee version of Springsteen's 'Born to Run' was so brilliant, nobody remembers whether the ratings stunk," says Tom Tangney, a judge with an Emmy rival, the Critics' Choice Television Awards. (For the record, 2010 ratings basically held steady from the previous year, and Fallon was a critical hit.)

So what about Neil Patrick Harris, who triumphed as host two years ago? Shaffner tells THR that Harris hasn't been approached because he has just signed on to host the 2011 Tonys. But considering that this year's Emmys is three weeks later than last year's -- Sunday, Sept. 18 -- Harris is a long shot because his CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother will be deep into production by then.

Shaffner also thought of Tina Fey, but she'll have just had her baby then -- and she's also very closely identified with another network, NBC, through 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, which doesn't help.

The academy could turn to Fox star Jane Lynch, who toplines one of the net's biggest hits, Glee. She's a proven comedian, and comics have always performed best as awards show hosts. That's why the Oscars used to rely on the likes of Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal, but that brand of universal likability is almost nonexistent in TV's ever-more-fractured universe.

Still, Emmy producers could consider ultra-likable Ryan Seacrest, host of the biggest show on TV, American Idol, and Fox's only other primetime ratings champ. But what's the upside for him? He hosted solo in 2007 and again a year later as one of the five reality TV hosts who went down in flames in one of the worst Emmys ever. This leaves the network in a hole: Fox has fewer stars with hosting chops than the other networks. "Their talent pool is a different situation," Shaffner says. "It's smaller."

One blogger suggests Hugh Laurie, star of Fox's veteran drama House. The British actor began his career as a comedian but hardly has a comic reputation in America.

Another suggestion is Conan O'Brien, but he had only lukewarm success hosting the Emmys in 2002.

Other candidates? Jon Stewart mostly bombed as an Oscar host, so you can forget him for the Emmys -- and his Comedy Central pal Stephen Colbert is likely also out, especially after years of grousing that his show has never won. (He's even lost to the likes of Barry Manilow.)

These individuals all have personal reasons for nixing the event. But even B-level contenders have compelling arguments for running for the hills.

First, they'd have to please not one but three bosses. The Emmys show is effectively controlled by a power troika led by the Academy under Shaffner; Fox Broadcasting, via its head of alternative programming, Mike Darnell; and superproducer Mark Burnett, the man who gave us Survivor and The Voice but has never before produced the Emmys. Serving one master is bad enough; trying to please all three is downright punishing.

"You have to abide by the networks and the producers and ATAS," says Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media. "So how much leeway do you have?"

Second, the failure of Oscar duo Hathaway and Franco to lure younger viewers -- and the torrent of abuse heaped on them over the Internet -- unleashed a wave of fear that has led agents and publicists to keep their clients well away from almost any major hosting gig. This summer Harris is the only high-profile name who's committed to a major event, and the Tony Awards doesn't claim the audience or high stakes of the Emmys.

"It may not be the best career move … hosting the Emmys or any awards show, because you're the focus of the show," Adgate says.

Then there's the ratings. With the exception of a major bump from host Ellen DeGeneres in 2005 (who's likely too busy with her hit daytime talk show to host again) and a minor bump from Harris, the Emmys has been on a long-term decline that not even the best hosts have managed to repair -- meaning there's little glory and almost no career upside.

DeGeneres boosted ratings in the key 18 to 49 demographic from a 4.6 in 2004 to a 6.1 the year she hosted, and Harris hoisted them from a 3.8 to a 4.2 the year after the reality hosts. But in that crucial youthful demo, ratings have done a stomach-churning zigzag from an 8.8 in 2000 to a 4.1 last year.

And it gets worse. Stars don't get rich from hosting; the PR factor and prestige have always been arguments for doing it -- at least they were when hosts such as Frank Sinatra, Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis could bathe in glory. Not anymore.

Shaffner is mulling some big-picture creative solutions on how to boost this year's Emmys, including amping up a "year-in-review concept." He also thinks the show should have a narrative "arc." As to a captain for this arc, he's stumped.

Our advice to Shaffner? Nix the host.

Having a host adds at least 30 minutes of yap to an already long show. (The last three Emmys clocked in at 3:01, 3:05 and 3:00.) The length of the show is a big issue for any network that broadcasts it -- the four major networks alternate -- and all want the Emmys to drop some categories, anathema to the guilds who provide the necessary clips. Cutting the host would save time. "The best awards show of the past few years is the Grammys, where they don't even have a host," Adgate says. "You just wonder -- is a host even needed?"

Hosts also arguably distract from what the Emmy focus should be: the winners. And, especially given the paucity of host talent, the very occasion most designed to celebrate the art of television will become a lightning rod for bashing it.

That's what happened to this year's Oscars, after all. No one at the movie academy wants to repeat its hosting disaster this year -- well, except perhaps the guy who helped create it, Franco himself.

"Maybe next time, I'll get to host the Daytime Emmys," he told THR just before his first, and likely last, Oscar-host gig.           

AND THE NOMINEES FOR EMMY HOSTS ARE ... The talent pool isn't deep, but it's not totally dried up. Here are some possible contenders and the pluses and minuses of signing them on for TV's toughest gig.

Ellen DeGeneres
Pro: Her post-9/11 host stint in 2001 made Emmy history, showcasing the comedienne's sharp take on nicey-nice comedy.
Con: An industry fixture for 17 years, DeGeneres might think she's too veteran for the job.

Jimmy Fallon
Pro: Last year's first-time host hit all the right notes, literally, while maintaining a friendly grip over a tough crowd.
Con: Viewers, critics and showbiz snobs like surprises, and a Fallon repeat might feel a little too last year.

Jane Lynch
Pro: With a tested mettle for acerbic satire (she's a fixture in Christopher Guest's mockumentaries), the Emmy-winning Glee actress is Fox's official comedy icon.
Con: If you don't watch Glee, do you care?

Seth MacFarlane
Pro: The creator of Fox's Family Guy killed as emcee of Comedy Central's Trump Roast in April.
Con: His predilection for pot jokes and take-no-prisoners jabs might be too Gervaisian for older viewers.

Seth Meyers
Pro: SNL's head writer is hot off a buzzy stint as host of the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
Con: He's a writer whose steady onscreen gig is delivering fake news from a fake news desk every Saturday.

Jeff Probst
Pro: He's Emmy producerMark Burnett's biggest reality talent and an experienced -- and funny -- stand-in for Regis Philbin on Live!
Con: He barely survived his last Emmy hosting stint in 2008 with fellow reality hosts.

Ryan Seacrest
Pro: The Idol host has two Emmy hosting stints under his belt and an almost inhuman capacity for likability.
Con: The ability to snark during the show -- the cornerstone of any good host -- isn't part of the Seacrest brand.