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‘American Idol,’ ‘The Voice’ Nab Top Host Talent for Top Dollar

When ABC announced in May that it had closed a deal to return “American Idol” to television, it did so with the help of a high-priced star. The network announced that pop singer Katy Perry would anchor the judge’s table on the rebooted unscripted juggernaut.
Perry, it was soon learned, would make $25 million for her work on the first season of the new “Idol.” The move to secure her set off a scramble for talent in the unscripted arena that would see A-listers such as Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, John Legend and Scooter Braun courted to launch or reinvigorate unscripted franchises to compete with the new version of one of television’s most successful shows.

When “American Idol” originally launched in 2001, the most famous name attached was that of Paula Abdul — a second-rung pop singer whose biggest hits were a decade behind her. But as ABC and producer FremantleMedia prep the new “Idol,” they do so at a time when top-tier talent is more available and more in demand than ever in the unscripted space.

“I think competition for talent in many ways is at an all-time high with the vast amount of real estate and new platforms,” says Brent Montgomery, CEO of ITV America.

That competition is most evident in the sudden resurgence in popularity of musical talent competition series. After Perry joined “Idol,” NBC moved quickly to secure Hudson and Clarkson — both “Idol” alums — to serve as coaches on its own music competition “The Voice.” Fox then fast-tracked its music competition, “The Four,” and has been courting Scooter Braun with an offer to executive produce and serve in an on-camera role. Braun has also spoken with ABC about joining “American Idol” and with CBS about launching a possible talent competition show there.

Netflix is developing a hip-hop competition show, “Rhythm & Flow,” with executive producer Legend, who could yet opt into an on-camera role.

The “Idol” pickup also set off a lengthy and ultimately fruitful negotiation with omnipresent host Ryan Seacrest, who will return to the show that made him a household name — though this time with far greater cachet and negotiating leverage.

David M. Buisán for Variety

“There is heavy, heavy competition when you have two or three big musical competitions going on simultaneously,” Montgomery says. “The talent is spread thin.”

Even prior to ABC’s “Idol” play, big-name talent had been migrating to unscripted — Jamie Foxx on Fox’s “Beat Shazam,” Mike Myers on ABC’s “The Gong Show,” Alec Baldwin on ABC’s “Match Game.” The days in which a series could be sold based solely on the strength of a format and with an unproven talent hosting, as Seacrest was when “Idol” launched, are long gone.

“I think the networks want talent-based shows, talent-driven shows,” says Amber Mazzola, CEO of Machete Prods. “Very rarely are you bringing a group of nobodies to a network these days. They want a familiar face.”

The primary motivator for pursuing top talent is competition in the peak TV era. With more shows on more channels and platforms than ever before, the networks are looking for any advantage they can claim when launching a new series.

“From a buyer perspective, due to the fact that there is so much competition in the marketplace, and because you have such a fragmented market where so much of your viewership is online, it makes sense to attach a name talent to their shows,” says Gil Goldschein, CEO of Bunim-Murray Prods. “A lot of these A-list celebrities have a large following and any time you launch a new show that those outside the industry may not be familiar with, you want to bring as many eyeballs as possible. A good way to do that may be to have an established brand with a celebrity.”

But Montgomery cites another, less-attractive possible motivator. “Everybody, certainly in cable and broadcast, is operating out of a position of fear,” he says. “People don’t lose their jobs when they put, say, Steve Harvey, into a show.”

Yet as the “Idol” and “Voice” deals demonstrate, such talent does not come cheap. Perry’s agreement ties her with “Today” host Matt Lauer as the third highest-paid on-camera talent in television, behind Ellen DeGeneres and “Judge Judy” Sheindlin. Foxx, Myers and Baldwin are each making $3 million per season. Seacrest will make $15 million per season for “Idol.” Those costs are shouldered by networks, and raise the stakes of their unscripted programming decisions.

“As far as how much is too much, I think that’s the analysis that has to be done by the buyer,” Goldschein says. “But I think there are probably certain instances where they’ve paid too much and they should have relied on the creative of the show.”

In the past, securing talent on the level of Foxx would have been near-impossible for a broadcast unscripted series. But in the current climate, it is possible to get a recent Academy Award winner to host a summer game show. The increased fees being demanded by unscripted talent is one carrot. Another is the workload, which is typically light compared to that of a feature film or unscripted series.

“When people get into their 30s and 40s, the idea of travelling to Vancouver or Toronto for six weeks may not necessarily be the end-all be-all,” Montgomery says. “The idea that they can have what people in television have always realized, a little more continuity in their lives, I would assume that that’s a driving force.”

And with A-listers willing to do the work, it’s a given that producers and networks will be in pursuit.

“I think more than ever, name value and brands are important,” says Rob Smith, head of unscripted for Endemol Shine North America. “You see that in so many shows right now. Whether it be someone like Michael Strahan or Alec Baldwin, getting a host who can cut through that clutter is so much more important for broadcasters than ever before.”

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