How NBC can turn Seacrest into a newsman

The harrumphing probably began before Ryan Seacrest even announced his new multifaceted deal with Comcast Corp., which  will keep him busy on NBC and E! across entertainment, sports and—brace for it–news programming. Seacrest-lauerGiven Seacrest is not a journalist, the mere thought of the “American Idol” host doing anything remotely in the neighborhood of news surely has gag reflexes firing away in newsrooms across the country.

But underestimate Seacrest’s ability to make this tricky transition at your own risk. He’s got the goods to pull off an expansion into news provided NBC guides him correctly.

Many journalists live in a fantasy world in which a fire wall strikes anyone dead who dares cross from the hellhole that is entertainment into their ink-stained sacred order. But decades ago some of the biggest names in news broadcasting made that a more porous border than you might assume. Before “60 Minutes” legend Mike Wallace became a news paragon, he hosted game shows. Same goes for former “20/20” titan Hugh Downs. Even when the highest of high priests, Walter Cronkite, hosted a CBS morning show before taking on the evening news, he had a regular segment in which he discussed the news with a lion puppet. And he was proud of it.

Journalists fancy their job—nay, calling—as if it were as specialized as being a brain surgeon when that really can’t be any further from the truth. Though it doesn’t do their sense of job security any good, the unfortunate truth is any average-brained individual with the right guidance can become a half-decent journalist without going to graduate school for years, particularly on TV, where the producers are the ones who are really doing the heavy lifting off-camera anyway. The part you can’t learn so quickly, if at all—being engaging on camera—is the one thing Seacrest is well-versed in, even if his experience there is drawn from entertainment.

The New York Times reported that the new deal will take Seacrest beyond primetime Olympics coverage and appearances on morning franchise “Today” to getting  involved in presidential election coverage in some unspecified way. But if he’s going to show up next week on “Rock Center” quizzing Mitt Romney about economic policy, that’s going to be a big mistake that neither NBC nor Seacrest may be able to live down.

If NBC is smart, they won’t throw Seacrest into the deep end of the news pool too quickly. Which isn’t to say he couldn’t figure out how to swim. No, the challenge for NBC lies less in maintaining quality control and more in managing the perception that they aren’t taking real news seriously by throwing unqualified on-air talent into the job.

But if NBC can gradually steep Seacrest in news territory, perhaps putting him at the margins of a big story before putting him front and center, he can make the kind of transition in his public perception that just isn’t going to work if the network rushes him. Lighter, human interest stories can eventually give way to more substantive material, but not before NBC at least creates the illusion that he’s paying his dues and learning the ropes.

Don’t forget that NBC is the network that turned former First Daughters Jenna Bush and Chelsea Clinton into correspondents; hopefully the Peacock can draw from those experiences in setting up Seacrest.

Could the day be far off when Seacrest is in a war zone? Don’t laugh. If anything, NBC may be hoping putting Seacrest in news as a way of making otherwise un-sexy subjects more accessible by his mere presence. Done correctly, NBC has the opportunity to turn turning Seacrest into a newsman from a risk to a coup.

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