How A-List Talent Changed the Face of Reality TV

Fourteen years ago, the world was introduced to an unfamiliar host on a new reality show: Ryan Seacrest on “American Idol.”

Today, “American Idol” has sung its last tune and Seacrest is a global phenomenon. But in 2016, would he have even gotten his shot at fame?

In the highly competitive era of peak TV, the Big Four are taking fewer risks on unknown talent when it comes to unscripted programming, placing all their bets on A-listers.

The reality show lineup of the 2016-17 season is a who’s-who of superstars. Arnold Schwarzenegger is taking over you-know-who’s seat on “The New Celebrity Apprentice”; Alec Baldwin is hosting “Match Game”; Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys are spinning around in “The Voice’s” red chairs; Michael Strahan is hosting “$100,000 Pyramid”; Simon Cowell returned to the States with “America’s Got Talent”; and Steve Harvey is the face of three series with two more on the way.

“It’s a highly saturated market right now and new shows have to stand out. Networks really depend on these big leaders who have built-in fanbases that will tune in to see them do something different,” says Cat Carson, an alternative television agent at CAA, which reps Schwarzenegger, Baldwin, Cyrus, and “American Idol’s” Jennifer Lopez. “Network executives always want to see who’s going to be on the billboard that will draw that attention.”

Jokes Harvey, “I don’t know who’s doing what — I’m just glad I’m one of them!”

NBC reality boss Paul Telegdy credits the broadcast TV machine for upping the level of fame for some of the industry’s biggest leaders.

“We’ve always had huge artists and big stars. We have also always been in the business of building talent,” Telegdy says.

“There’s every version of the journey to becoming the A-list star on broadcast television and we have created stars that are now elevated to A-list, but of course we welcome the Schwarzeneggers and Steve Harveys who come to us with existing star power.”

Telegdy points to the beginning of “The Voice,” which served as a career launchpad for two of today’s biggest TV personalities: Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. “Everyone remembers the first season of ‘The Voice.’ It was Christina Aguilera and the three other dudes,” he quips.

Carson agrees that the singing competition show has boosted the musicians’ careers, and she notes that CAA sees the same potential for Cyrus now that she’s joined “The Voice.”

“If you look at Maroon 5, it’s a great way to drive up ticket sales for touring because now viewers have that personal connection to that celebrity,” Carson says. “TV is the new radio where these musicians can really showcase their personalities that fans may not have been able to see in traditional interviews or through their music.”

In comparison to just a few years back when celebrities were wary to sign on for a reality project, unscripted TV is now seen as a golden opportunity for talent.

“The list of talent, entertainers, actors, musicians, and comedians that will ‘never’ do reality TV is now the shortest list in Hollywood — and that has not always been the case,” Telegdy says. “The talent on our shows become the best version of their brand; the most merchandisable version of their brand.”

The most recent example for the network is “Little Big Shots,” which has cemented Harvey’s fame, even beyond the recognition he already had from his successful daytime talk show. “He caught the bug and realized how awesome it is to entertain America on a grand scale,” Teledgy says.

“Everybody likes to laugh, everybody loves kids and I’m good with kids,” Harvey says of the massive “Little Big Shots” ratings. “I think it’s interesting that I’ve crossed so many genres. Of course, ‘Family Feud’ put me in a lot of Middle America family homes and the rest of the stuff just fell into place.”

For Lopez, reality TV was the key to broadening her career. Following “American Idol,” the multi-hyphenate signed on to topline her own scripted NBC drama, released another album, and launched a multimillion-dollar Las Vegas residency. And now, she’s exec producing a new dance competition series for NBC, “World of Dance.”

Lopez is among a group of famous reality producers with their own production companies, including Jimmy Fallon (Spike’s “Lip Sync Battle”), Drew Barrymore (VH1’s “Tough Love,” Esquire’s “Knife Fight”), and Ellen DeGeneres (“Little Big Shots”).

“To have a celebrity EP or host really is strategic, and given the high caliber of talent that we’re lucky to work with, it’s a great advantage for us to be able to package,” Carson says.

She points to Fallon’s involvement with “Lip Sync Battle” as key to launching the series. “Having that celebrity attachment really helps bring in other contestants to the series,” she says. “I mean, Beyonce showed up! I think it’s undeniable to see what people are willing and able to do on television with the right partners.”

And on the other side of the camera, participating as a contestant has benefits as well. Consider Alfonso Ribeiro, who won “Dancing With the Stars,” and is now host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Or former “The View” co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck who got her start on “Survivor.” Or Bill Rancic who won the inaugural “Apprentice.”

“There’s a lot of reason to do nonscripted television, and it doesn’t have to be a harsh word. It’s really an elevated genre that’s an important piece to expand business,” Carson says.

While talent sees the advantage of reality TV for personal brands, A-listers aren’t just signing on to better their business. Sometimes, they just want to have fun. Schwarzenegger wanted to take Donald Trump’s spot on “Apprentice” because he was a fan of the show. And when he expressed interest, NBC jumped at the opportunity.

“If you are a 45-year-old male in this country, you have seen every single Schwarzenegger movie. Schwarzenegger is a verb, a noun, a lyric — he is just ridiculously famous,” Telegdy says with a laugh. “Arnold Schwarzenegger was announced as the host and every overseas news outlet, as well as domestic news outlets, picked up the story because he’s a global superstar and a global brand. We have international interest in this version because he is in it, and that was a new component for us.”

But casting A-listers does come with a price.

“You do pay for leaders as big as Schwarzenegger, Cowell, Harvey. Let’s not be silly — they’re very well-paid performers because they’re heavy-hitters in the business so everyone knows it comes with a big paycheck,” Telegdy admits. “But it also comes with a responsibility of a big rating, pop cultural domination, and real profitability.”

Jokes Harvey, “It would be weird if the checks weren’t coming. That would be weird!”

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