Reality has finally set in with the Television Academy.
A year after tapping Ryan Seacrest to host the Emmy telecast, the org decided it might be a good idea to recognize the “American Idol” emcee’s day job as well, christening a new category just for reality hosts.
“I look at reality as part of what holds up television as a whole,” says Craig Plestis, who oversees reality TV for NBC Universal. “You need nonscripted series to be one of the legs that holds up that table.”
To make things interesting, the category’s first five nominees — Tom Bergeron of “Dancing With the Stars,” “Survivor’s” Jeff Probst, “Project Runway’s” Heidi Klum, “Deal or No Deal’s” Howie Mandel and “American Idol’s” Ryan Seacrest — will host the awards show itself.
It’s vindication day for those who work in reality TV, still struggling to get recognition for their craft.
“I’ve always felt reality is the unmentionable bastard offspring no one wants to acknowledge, but has to be invited to family events anyway,” says “Project Runway” producer Dan Cutforth. “If I was to be cynical, I’d say (the reality hosts) were brought in for the viewers because, frankly, people are more interested in seeing the hosts of their favorite reality shows than some balding, bespectacled producer thanking his parents.”
But what do the nominees have in common exactly? And how are voters supposed to choose?
“Jeff is a pioneer — no other show like (“Survivor”) ever existed. Ryan has been at the forefront of the biggest show to hit primetime television. Howie took a gameshow and made it special. Heidi made viewers feel like insiders in the fashion world. And Tom made this ridiculous ballroom competition make sense,” Cutforth says. “Everyone in this category has done something remarkable with their shows.”
“Survivor” producer Mark Burnett doesn’t think it makes much sense to compare a gameshow host with a reality series host — it’s almost like pitting Tina Fey against Glenn Close in the same category.
“Certainly, an unscripted show like ‘Survivor’ is not the same as a talent show, which is not the same as a gameshow,” Burnett says. “I have great respect for the Emmys, and while any gain for nonfiction programming is great, hopefully every year we’ll move a bit more in the right direction.”
Burnett says Probst is the standout in the field and really started the reality show trend.
“Jeff is a huge reason why ‘Survivor’ has been such a success. He strikes this balance between providing information and taking an editorial view. He calls the contestants to task, but has such real warmth about him that everybody loves Jeff,” Burnett says. “He’s not only a great ambassador for our show, but he’s a great ambassador for our country.”
“Deal or No Deal” producer David Goldberg is partial to his own host, of course. As he recalls, Mandel was originally reluctant to be associated with a gameshow, given how it might look on a resume that included a dramatic role in the critically acclaimed “St. Elsewhere,” a popular standup comedy career and experience as a talkshow host.
“When casting, we needed someone like Howie who had experience in a variety of entertainment genres,” Goldberg says. “This show has some extremely tense moments. A person on the brink of winning a million dollars can end up with a dollar in their pocket. You need someone who can play to those highs and lows, and Howie does that beautifully. Howie is the glue that holds this show together — you just can’t imagine anyone else hosting this show.”
Thinking on their feet
Though the category may be new, the discipline harks back to the old variety-show days, explains “Dancing With the Stars” producer Conrad Green.
“In these shows, the host is like the alchemist who turns lead to gold,” he says. “You can have a good show without a great host, but you can’t have a great show without the right host. ”
Green compliments Bergeron’s ability to walk the fine line of not taking the show too seriously while giving the dancers their due.
“Tom knows how to make us laugh, but also knows when things need to be taken seriously. He’s spontaneous and sets the tone for the show,” Green says. “There have been some difficult moments on the air, with people dealing with family members dying and other members dying and other tragedies, then moments of great humor, and Tom can handle it all. Doing a live program like this was a lost art for a long time. Not that many people can do it.”
Klum took a subject about which few were interested and made it a phenomenon.
“One thing that sets her apart from the other hosts is that she has a Peabody Award,” Cutforth says. “Heidi became the face of this show. ‘Runway’ had no business working. It’s about people sewing and living in a world that’s quite closed off. You can’t even buy tickets to go to fashion week in New York. But Heidi made it all relatable to the audience and brought them into a part of the fashion world. She’s not mean, but she speaks her mind and is open and honest, which comes across well in the show.”
Perhaps a next step for the Academy would be to break up the host category into live and scripted.
“Eventually, I think we will see some distinction from field vs. stage shows the same way we have seen dramas vs. movies categories,” says “American Idol” producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz, who naturally sees Seacrest as the clear winner this year.
“No one is better at this than Ryan. He’s incredibly professional, and he’s very good on his feet. He can build the dramatic moment or react quickly with humor. He’s endearing and knows how to connect with the contestants,” she says. “You can rely on him to bring the show in on time, and he can handle anything that comes up. Every time we look for a host for another one of our shows, we say we need another Seacrest. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. If there were, it would be much easier to produce reality shows.”
Though each is rooting for the home team, the producers can all agree on one thing: They hope this category doesn’t follow in the footsteps of outstanding reality show, where “Amazing Race” has won every year since the category was introduced.
“I guess if that is the case, then whoever wins as host this time better clear off a big shelf,” Green jokes.
Now, if the awards show really wants to crank up the ratings, Cutforth has a suggestion.
“Have America vote at the end of the Emmys to see who did the best job as the Emmy host,” he says with tongue firmly in cheek. “It will build tension through the night, like a big Emmy reveal show. Maybe we’ll even have a tote board.”