Monday, January 19, 2004

Ryan Seacrest's ambitions are no 'Idol' dream

With a slew of new projects, he hopes to prove that he's not just another pretty face.

By Steve Carney, Special to the Los Angeles Times

With the premiere of the third season of "American Idol" tonight, host Ryan Seacrest caps a 10-day span he hopes will mark the beginning of his evolution from affable, well-coiffed confection to entertainment mogul.

Ryan Seacrest with Dick Clark (source: Los Angeles Times)
The prospect might be hard to reconcile for anyone dismissing the former KYSR-FM (98.7) DJ as a pop-culture firefly -- an attractive amusement who keeps appearing here, there and seemingly everywhere.

Along with his duties on "Idol," the pop-star factory on Fox, he's worked as host of its spinoff "American Juniors," as star of an AT&T cellphone commercial, as correspondent on "Extra" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," as presenter on the Emmy Awards, as host of the American Radio Music Awards, as guest host on "Larry King Live" and as host of Fox's New Year's Eve broadcast.

Some viewers -- like the Salt Lake City columnist who called him the "bedhead antichrist" -- might think they've already seen and heard plenty of the tanned and toned 29-year-old.

Well, they're out of luck, because he's becoming even harder for them to avoid. On Jan. 10, Seacrest debuted as the host of the iconic radio countdown show "American Top 40"; then on Jan. 12 he premiered his new daily entertainment news-talk show hybrid, "On Air," syndicated nationwide -- on which he's not only host but also an executive producer.

The fate of that show in particular could help determine the public's appetite for Seacrest. Early results are troubling, with ratings for the first few days below expectations. Still, Seacrest is upbeat.

"This is my shot, to prove I can make it. It's my opportunity to do it all and do it well," said Seacrest, a self-effacing "radio geek" whose boyhood idols were Casey Kasem and Rick Dees, the morning institution on KIIS-FM (102.7). He's already taken the "American Top 40" reins Kasem held for three decades, and he is Dees' permanent guest host and heir apparent.

Next in his sights: Dick Clark and Merv Griffin, whom Seacrest admires for their business savvy as much as their screen time. Griffin started as a singer who went on to become a long-running talk-show host, creator of "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy," executive producer of other programs, hotelier and vintner. Clark, best known for hosting "American Bandstand," also owns several restaurants, and his Dick Clark Productions has flooded the TV airwaves with thousands of hours of programming. With "On Air," Seacrest wants to be both a face in front of the camera and a force behind it.

"Just to be a presenter for hire is a lot of fun, but if you want to maintain longevity, the success is in equity. I wanted to have ownership," he said. And "On Air," the first show from Ryan Seacrest Productions, will "hopefully be the first step in building that world."

Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research, said Seacrest is already ahead of the pace of Carson Daly, for example, the former KROQ-FM (106.7) DJ who went on to national fame hosting MTV's "Total Request Live" and a late-night talk show on NBC, "Last Call."

"It took several years and many projects for Carson Daly to reach critical mass outside L.A.," said Ross, whose New Jersey-based market research company tracks radio trends. Seacrest, he said, is capitalizing on his exposure and recognition without yet hitting saturation.

"On Air" broadcasts live from a studio built for Seacrest at the Hollywood & Highland complex and airs locally at 5 p.m. weekdays on KTTV-TV Channel 11. The hourlong program, syndicated by Fox subsidiary Twentieth Television, offers live music, celebrity interviews, pop-culture news and audience participation, all with a backdrop of the Hollywood sign and a billboard of a grinning Seacrest.

The program shares elements with MTV's "Total Request Live" and frothy newsmagazines such as "Entertainment Tonight" but also features radio-esque bits, such as phone calls from fans or a contest sending an Adam Sandler fan to Hawaii to interview the star about his new movie. In many ways, it's a visual version of "The Ride Home," the "Star 98.7" afternoon radio show he hosted with Lisa Foxx, Seacrest said, absent the personal dishing about relationships.

"Let's be honest. This is not going to change anyone's life," Seacrest said, but "we hope it will be a place you come to if you want the latest in entertainment."

He studied target audience demographics and time slots before pitching "On Air" to Fox, evidence of the career calculation and ambition he's shown since his debut on the radio at 16. As an intern in his Atlanta hometown for WSTR-FM, he went on the air without permission, then persuaded station management to give him a shift.

He later quit the University of Georgia to move to Hollywood, recognizing what he called the "ceiling of opportunity" if he stayed home. And he auditioned for "American Idol" in the first place because he knew how successful its precursor had been in Britain.
When he worked for Griffin in 1997 as host of "Click," an Internet-themed game show for kids, he also haunted the production meetings, learning the behind-the-scenes mechanics.

"He astounded me on 'Click,' " Griffin said. "Here's a brand-new kid -- we never had a script on that show. He just came in and took over. He's very loose. He's very interested in the guests. He's not intimidated by anybody. He's inventive. He's not afraid of taking chances. Usually performers don't want anything to do with the business of the show, because it distracts them."

But Seacrest said hearing a show pitch or developing a new program is as exciting as hosting for him -- though not as fun, he admits.

He arrives at the "On Air" studios about 6:45 a.m., heads to a nearby gym for a workout, then begins show preparation with rehearsals and briefings until the program broadcasts live to the East Coast at noon. Afterward he's filming promotional spots for future shows or Fox affiliates, or sitting for myriad newspaper, magazine or television interviews. Thursdays he also tapes that weekend's "American Top 40," heard locally on KIIS Saturdays from 6 to 10 a.m.

And this week he adds "American Idol" to the schedule.

While scarfing down a grilled-chicken salad during a late lunch in his office last week, Seacrest said he had to grab a bite then or pass out before he got the next chance, hours later, to feed his energetic, elfin frame.

"I definitely have a very intense pace to each day," he said, but he was conditioned to the hectic, unending schedule by his job at KYSR, which he gave up to host "On Air." "I've been doing a four-hour radio show for 10 years. I'm not used to a hiatus."

It's a juggling act he's performed since high school, when he had to shuttle between his radio job and practice for the Dunwoody High football team, for which he played safety.

"It's a problem you want to have, not to have enough hours in the day," he said. "If I sleep until 8 o'clock, I feel somebody else is out there doing it. I put that pressure on myself."

Nevertheless, he said, "I'm in a very fortunate position. I'm a really content, happy person. I embrace the good and bad of being in the public eye. It feels good to have people invest in you."

The flip side, though, is that the company, the affiliates and the 100 staffers on the show are relying on the program's success, so "there is a huge amount of pressure on you."

While a truck hauling an "On Air" billboard continually passes behind the massive window serving as his backdrop, Seacrest is clearly far removed from his days driving the van for Atlanta's WSTR, handing out bumper stickers. Or when he was a 10-year-old imitating Kasem, or stuffing wadded-up toilet paper in his shirt sleeves to simulate muscles so he could play both roles in a pretend "Terminator" interview: host and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"My mother really puts this in perspective when she visits," Seacrest joked. "She says, 'I remember when you used to do this in your bedroom.' "

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