Emmys: Inside the Strange, Brief History of the Reality Host Battle

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Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn

The Emmys' infamous five-reality-hosts-as-emcees debacle in 2008 was just the beginning.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

For better or worse, American audiences see the hosts of their favorite reality series as family. The unspoken (but oft-tweeted-about) bond that stirs viewers to bring the emcees who topline TV's biggest hits into their homes at night is so strong, it even weathered The Great Emmy Host Debacle of 2008. This was when, on TV's biggest night, the inaugural nominees in the Best Reality Host category -- Tom Bergeron, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst and Ryan Seacrest -- were charged with co-hosting the ABC telecast.

The experiment was an epic disaster. Mandel filled the night with transparent jokes about the group's lack of preparation; the five-way monologue barely elicited a laugh from the crowd (THR wrote at the time that they "blathered on for what seemed like an eternity"); and they were even mocked by other presenters over the course of the night. History has them shouldering much of the blame for the show ranking as the least-watched ever, with just 12.2 million viewers.

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"Almost everybody in that room hates reality TV to start with," recalls one unscripted exec who was among those inside the awkwardly silent Nokia Theatre that night. "It was never going to get a decent reaction in the house, because scripted is still king and reality is the court jester. That opening was one of the worst live moments ever … horrifically bad in a way that almost made it great."

But the TV Academy did not punish the hosts for that performance. In fact, their race for relevance persists: It's one of the few reality-TV-oriented trophies (there are dozens) presented during the live telecast, and unscripted shows are becoming an even bigger force at this year's Emmys. Most recently, the non-competition series were split into two categories: structured (a la Shark Tank) and unstructured (i.e., docuseries). As for the hosts, their contest is proving less predictable since Survivor host Probst's four-year streak came to an end two years ago. The funny thing about his wins: In all of that time, the CBS series never nabbed a nod of its own.

It's another example of Emmy voters embracing discord. Scripted series and variety-show writing nominees often don't see their series score nominations in those races. And one of the great head-scratchers of all time: AMC's Mad Men took the top drama award four years in a row without one member of its sprawling cast ever going home with a win.

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Similarly, affection for reality TV hosts and affection for the shows that employ them seem to be mutually exclusive. "I think this shows that the Emmy voter is somewhat discerning," says one reality producer. "They don't just blanket the ballot with their favorite shows. We've seen that. We've seen it in Jeff Probst and Tom Bergeron winning awards that they truly deserved while their shows might never win."

This year's crop of host contenders, with a couple exceptions, is made up of the usual suspects. Incumbents Klum and Tim Gunn (now a package deal for Project Runway) face off against 2012 winner Bergeron (Dancing With the Stars), four-time nominee Cat Deeley (So You Think You Can Dance), Betty White (Betty White's Off Their Rockers), Jane Lynch (Hollywood Game Night) and Anthony Bourdain (The Taste). And if you're looking for incongruity, Bourdain might be the epitome. Not only is his series, The Taste, not nominated, it finished the broadcast season as one of the least-watched reality competitions on TV. This makes the host race one of the most subjective awards handed out each year.

"People don't have an emotional attachment to concepts or formats; they have a relationship with the people on the screen," says one exec. "It's more of a popularity contest than anyone analyzing the job of a host. They're playing themselves. A host can completely divorce themselves from the show itself."

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That separation doesn't necessarily work in a host's favor. Carson Daly runs the live telecasts for the Big Four's reigning reality king (and 2013 Emmy winner for outstanding reality competition) The Voice, but he has never scored a nomination. The Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan largely has gone ignored despite the fact that his series has dominated the competition category, with nine wins since its 2001 birth. American Idol's Ryan Seacrest is regarded as the paragon of live TV hosts by producers, peers and viewers, but he is absent from the host race for the first time this year as Idol has continued its slide away from juggernaut status.

"I'm shocked that Ryan never won," says Nigel Lythgoe, the judge and executive producer of Fox's So You Think You Can Dance (up for seven Emmys this year) who also served as the longtime showrunner for American Idol. "Live TV is not easy. To bring the show in on time is not easy. To say goodnight at the right time is not easy. They have to police the show, move it along. Also, Ryan and Cat really listen to the contestants. You really don't see that in other hosts."

The rigors of live TV have some wondering if the reality categories shouldn't be beefed up even further, with hosts of live telecasts perhaps being judged separately from those who emcee preproduced series in front of audiences or even clip shows. White and the Project Runway pair don't have to negotiate with live audiences, and Lynch (the first game show nominee since Mandel's one-off for Deal or No Deal in 2008) also has what many regard as a different gig with its own unique challenges.

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The likelihood of that is a complete crapshoot, though the Emmy tide is certainly in reality's favor. Many look at this year's vote to split the non-competition category as a concession to the shows' growing importance, though there are others who think reality's stepchild status will keep it from expanding further.

And for the hosts, there also is the very real obstacle of their small pool. While 112 reality series total were submitted for consideration across the three categories this year, only 57 host names were ever in the running. There also is a general dearth of opportunities for new host blood, inside and outside the Emmy race, leaving it uncertain as to when the next batch of Seacrests, Bergerons and Deeleys will have a chance to break through -- especially when the testing ground is often too brutal for networks to justify risk-taking.

The U.S. version of The X Factor on Fox certainly suffered from an unwieldy host scenario. (Then-unknown Steve Jones, who helmed the first season in 2011, was the first out the door during the initial overhaul.) And producers' decision to bank on reality star Khloe Kardashian's social media cachet backfired during the second season when she proved to be too green for live TV.

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"You want the kind of person you'd notice if they were gone," sums up one producer.

Lythgoe, who tested hundreds before going with Seacrest and Deeley on his respective series, thinks that the next big hosts are working, just not on the same scale as during Idol and Survivor's heyday a decade ago.

"Everything is cyclical," he says. "The next generation of hosts will probably come from the radio DJs and morning-show presenters that come through and stand out. But while we still have good formats, the shows [on now] aren't going to die anytime soon."