Idol Worship

How Ryan Seacrest Built an Empire That Will Outlast 'American Idol'

Ryan Seacrest American Idol
Michael Becker / Fox

Ryan Seacrest on American Idol

“Humility is really important because it keeps you fresh and new,” Steven Tyler once said. And while self-abnegation as a means to a triumphant end may seem counterintuitive, maybe this former American Idol judge was just trying to express a lesson he learned from watching Ryan Seacrest build a vast media empire and nine-figure fortune out of deflecting the spotlight onto everyone around him.

As the host with the most, in every measurable way, Seacrest is the only true media mogul of our time whose entire kingdom is predicated on being deferential. For all we know, he’s as avaricious as Donald Trump, but as long as we can spot him on a red carpet, having to wave down Brad and Angelina like everybody else -- if not necessarily wave quite as hard -- he’ll always be far more the Everyman than a Machiavelli.

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Consider the relative success of his best-known catchphrases. He wisely dropped “Seacrest, out” sometime back; referring to himself in the third person, even in the most jocular way, just seemed wrong for someone so otherwise determinedly humble. What we’ll always remember him saying, instead? That’d be “your American Idol” -- the three words that reinforce his place as a delivery system and means to other talented people’s ends.

Idol coming to an end after a 15th and final season won’t put much of a crimp in his mogul style. The $15 million annual salary he negotiated for hosting Idol back in 2009 might not even be that sorely missed by a guy Forbes says actually brings home $65 million a year. (That’s only good enough to make him #31 on the money magazine’s list of the world’s most powerful celebrities, but it’s something.) Surely even he can’t keep track of exactly how many jobs he has; as Jimmy Kimmel joked back in 2012, “I know why unemployment is over 8 percent -- it's because of Ryan Seacrest." There are the daily and weekly radio programs (American Top 40 and On Air With Ryan Seacrest), the annual TV gigs (New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and the E! red-carpet specials), the reality-show production company (Keeping Up With the Kardashians), the cable channel co-ownership (AXS), the menswear line, the product endorsements, the smartphone app company. If his being an entertainment-biz omnivore is pointed out to him, he retreats to the humblebrag. Interviewer Diana Madison pointed out that he is on four different networks; his response: “I hope one of ‘em still likes me in five years.” He elaborated about this alleged insecurity with The New York Times back in 2006: “I'm frightened by the thought of being out of work. Growing up, there were people on shows like Diff'rent Strokes, Facts of Life, Love Boat that you thought would be huge stars for the rest of their lives, and they've just vanished. You never want to be that person." God and Willis forbid!

He won’t be that person -- even if Seacrest is losing the most visible of his gazillion platforms, the one that once could command up to 36 million viewers at a time, as opposed to the 6.6 million series all-time low Idol sank to late in this season. If Dick Clark could survive American Bandstand finally going to the great Rate-a-Record segment in the sky, Seacrest is just as well positioned to survive any conceivable media apocalypse. Everyone knows Clark is his once-and-forever American idol: Seacrest cold-called Clark in the early 2000s, after he’d already reached fame on Idol, and developed the friendship that led to his becoming heir-apparent to the New Year’s throne. They share a similar legacy: forever associated with the promotion of music, even though we have very little sense of what their respective preferences are or whether they’re huge fans or not. When you’re moonlighting a hundred different jobs, you don’t have a lot of spare time to put on records, right? But even asserting tastes might get in the way of the job.

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You hear less these days about another acknowledged hero of his, Merv Griffin, who gave Seacrest his first big TV break when he hired him to host a short-lived, syndicated game show called Click! in the mid-‘90s. That would be the same Merv Griffin who died a billionaire after decades of being a figure of mockery for his onscreen obsequiousness. Studying these two antecedents, Seacrest learned that there was a job description potentially even more magical than Host, and that was Executive Producer.

The lineage that Seacrest is part of stretches much longer through history than just those two. In a way, you could consider Desi Arnaz a spiritual ancestor. Although Arnaz wasn’t known for his hosting duties and well pre-dated reality TV, he was a pioneer as a multi-hyphenate, cofounding Desilu, which produced shows like Star Trek and Mission: Impossible that thrived long after I Love Lucy and his marriage to Lucille Ball hit the rocks. (And, much like a host, he perpetuated the idea that he was playing himself.) Casey Kasem, of course, preceded Seacrest as the American Top 40 guy, although he wasn’t so eager to build a production empire that didn’t directly involve his skills. In contemporary terms, you might have to look to an Oprah to find a personality as eager to spread as many tentacles.

And then there’s Carson Daly, who may forever have to be seen as a Seacrest Jr., even if his MTV fame came before the meteoric part of Seacrest’s rise. The Voice is out-rating Idol by a considerable margin and we now know it will outlive it, but when we see Daly gently urging the judges along while trying to stay as inoffensive as possible, what we see is the shadow of Seacrest, in somewhat diminished, mini-mogul form. Our Ryan is the standard by which all future overly humble powermongers will be measured.

How is it that, out of everybody, the purposely unassuming Seacrest came out ahead in the long Idol race -- beating out the rather more strong-willed Simon Cowell and beating out in stardom even the bare handful of singers who managed to become successful via the show? Maybe it’s partly his reserve. When we look into some other TV hosts’ eyes, we see a deadness there, but Seacrest always has a spark visible, albeit one that he’s not taking any great pains to turn into a fire. There were those couple of seasons on Idol where things got a bit testy between him and Cowell, and Seacrest would respond to the comedic hostility with just enough of a rejoinder to prove to America he had a spine. In these moments you wondered if he would blossom into a full-blown personality -- one with needs and wants and bitter barbs of his own -- as well as “a personality.” He didn’t, because he has too strong a sense of what the gig is -- that being: pointing elsewhere.

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If being selfless in the service of obsequiousness were the sum total of his talent, there would be a lot more of us out here with reported $200 million fortunes. Seacrest himself remains typically self-deprecating about his core job description: "Being the flavor of ice cream that goes with other flavors, that's my business," he told The Times. And: “I enjoy being in the middle of someone else’s time and spotlight.”

The real measure of Seacrest’s success may lie in how, on Idol, he became better at engaging with and being slightly protective of the contestants over time -- increasingly making us imagine we desperately cared about their fates, even as dire record sales increasingly proved that we really didn’t. The art of constant redirection: It’s good work if you can get it.