The Television Host I Admire The Most

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 15, 2014 – 5:02 am

This may surprise you, but the television host I admire the most is American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest.

Seacrest may be the single most agile host of the television era. Don’t laugh. If that statement seems hyperbolic, keep in mind that the most famous television emcee of the 20th Century—Dick Clark—personally handpicked Seacrest to be his successor. 

Even if you loathe American Idol—or if music reality television isn’t your thing—I encourage you to tune in when its new season debuts tonight. Watch it as a dispassionate analyst. Dissect what makes Seacrest so good at his job. Look at the mechanics that make him effective in his role. Then, apply those same traits to the next event at which you’ll serve as the host or emcee.

In this post, I’ll identify six traits that make Ryan Seacrest the best in the business.

Ryan Seacrest by Jyle Dupuis

1. He Makes a Hard Job Look Easy

Don’t let him fool you—hosting a show with so many moving parts isn’t easy. Seacrest has to listen to producers talking into his ear; forge a connection with contestants and television viewers; read copy; hit his mark; know which camera is live; contend with the ego of the judges, who jockey for “talk time”; pay enough attention to be able to ad lib; and go with the flow while managing the clock.

2. He’s Totally In The Moment

Contestants say weird things. Audience members shout out at inopportune moments. Technical glitches cause tape not to roll or audio to fail. Judges bicker. Bottom line, things go wrong in live television. And Seacrest rolls with those unexpected moments with the grace of an unflappable pro. If anything, he appears amused when those moments occur, giving viewers a sense that he has the whole operation under control. In that way he’s similar to Johnny Carson, who earned his biggest laughs after his worst jokes bombed.

3. He’s a Great Ad-Libber

Thinking of witty impromptu remarks isn’t easy under normal circumstances—but doing it with dozens of moving pieces all around you is even harder. Even though Seacrest is constantly surrounded by distractions and needs to always be thinking ahead, he listens carefully to what people are saying to him right now, which allows him to form an instant response. Think that’s easy? Jimmy Fallon and legendary television host Dick Cavett say that’s one of the most difficult things to do as a host.

4. He’s Knows It’s Not About Him

As mentioned in the video above, Seacrest doesn’t come off as egocentric. Instead, he uses his talent to bring out the best in the people around him and set them up to have their moment. Great hosts know that their job is to make others look good and their audiences feel comfortable—and then get out of the way. Seacrest does all three perfectly.

American Idol Season 13

5. He Treats People Well

Seacrest is funny but never jokes at the contestants’ expense. He appears genuinely empathetic when bad things happen to people (a contestant gets a scathing review from the judges, for example), and excited when good things happen for them. Those traits make others feel comfortable around him—and that trust between him and the contestants, judges, and celebrity guests results in more revealing interviews.

As an example, here’s a video of him with a contestant from last season named Charlie Askew. Askew had just received savage criticism—and as you’ll see in the video, he didn’t handle it well. But instead of making a deeply uncomfortable moment even more awkward, Seacrest rescued the moment.

6. He Always Looks Like He’s Having Fun

Seacrest has hosted hundreds of episodes of American Idol. He must have a bad day once in a while, but he never lets it show. If he’s ever self-aware that a show is going off the rails, he doesn’t show it; he stays in the moment and tries to make it better. The highest praise I can offer to anyone—and that Seacrest has earned—is this: He’s a total professional.

Note: Although season 13 debuts tonight, you’ll see more of Seacrest’s emceeing chops when the unedited live shows begin next month. | Ryan Seacrest Photo credit: Jyle Dupuis

Who is your favorite television host, past or present? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Will American Idol Reverse Its “White Guy” PR Problem?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 16, 2013 – 6:02 am

If you’re a woman trying to win this season’s American Idol (season 12 debuts on Fox tonight), I have bad news for you. The past five years suggest it’s not going to happen. If you’re a man—but African American, Hispanic, or Asian—same goes for you. The program’s recent history suggests you’re going to lose.

That’s good news for adorable, guitar-strumming white guys, who get a bonus point if they have just a touch of non-threatening facial stubble. 

The past five seasons of American Idol have each rendered a predictable winner—but not necessarily the most talented or marketable singer. And that creates a problem for Idol’s producers, who are trying to keep the flagging franchise propped up for at least another season.

Last year’s winner, Philip Phillips

 

Here’s the succession of white guy winners and their sales history since winning the show:

Season 7: David Cook: His debut album sold more than 1.5 million copies. But his 2011 follow-up sold just 130,000 and failed to produce a hit.

Season 8: Kris Allen: His sophomore album, released in May 2012, sold just 23,000 copies. 

Season 9: Lee DeWyze: His debut album sold just 149,000 copies and failed to produce a hit.

Season 10: Scotty McCreery: McCreery’s first album, Clear as Day, has sold 1.1 million copies—a relative success, but still less than David Cook’s debut album.

Season 11: Philip Phillips: Phillips’s album has sold more than 300,000 copies since its November debut. He also had a huge hit single, “Home,” which sold more than 2.9 million copies and hit the top ten. Phillips, along with McCreery, appears to be best positioned for long-term success. 

Idol’s ratings are dropping fast—last year’s finale was its lowest-rated ever. Yes, the show is facing new competition from other popular singing shows, but I can’t help thinking that Idol is suffering from its predictability. Reality shows missing a sense of “anything can happen” are simply less interesting to watch. 

The 2013 judging panel: Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, Nikki Minaj, and Randy Jackson. Host Ryan Seacrest in background.

 

Last May, I offered producers the following three tips to shake things up:

1. Change The Voting Formula: I suspect that as the show has aged, it’s viewing demographic has narrowed. (As an example, I almost never see the 2,200+ people I follow on Twitter discussing results). Idol can use the same voting formula that The Voice uses; the public gets a 50 percent share of the vote, and the judges get another 50 percent.

2. The Judges Can…Well, Judge: The judges – Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler – are nice. Too nice. By complimenting even mediocre performances and pairing critical feedback with undeserved praise, the viewing audience isn’t able to use the judge’s reactions as a voting guide. They should offer unsparing feedback, audience boos and hurt feelings be damned. (Note: this year’s judging panel has three new arrivals: Mariah Carey, Keith Urban, and Nikki Minaj. Randy Jackson remains.)

3. More Jimmy Iovine, Please: Idol mentor Jimmy Iovine is a legendary music producer who has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and U2. He tells contestants exactly what he thinks. The problem? Idol doesn’t air his comments until after the voting concludes. They should air his comments before the voting begins so he can help influence voters.

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Hollywood Publicists, Fake Feuds, and Phony Marriages

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 25, 2012 – 3:00 pm

At the end of every month, I write an article that lists that month’s five worst video media disasters.

A few weeks ago, I saw a video of a media disaster and thought, “This one has to go on the list.” But the more I thought about it, the more I concluded that it may not have been a media disaster at all, but a purposefully staged “fight” to bring more buzz to a television program.

The video involved two of next season’s new judges for American Idol: singers Mariah Carey and Nikki Minaj. Here’s the clip:

Nicki Minaj: “Think I’m playin’? Think this shit is a fucking joke? Think it’s a joke? Think it’s a joke? Think it’s a joke? Say one more disrespectful thing to me, if you say one more disrespectful thing to me — off with your head…I’m not fucking putting up with your fucking highness over there … figure it the fuck out.”

 

This fight may have been real. But the history of fake feuds to boost ratings, movie box office receipts, or record sales is as old as show business itself.

In singer Rod Stewart’s new book, which was released on Tuesday, he describes the work done on his behalf by press agent Tony Toon, who regularly generated press that had no basis in reality.

Stewart shares this anecdote:

“Perhaps the classic Toon fabrication was the story of the thwarted love affair I supposedly had with the daughter of President Gerald Ford. Now, it was true that Susan Ford came to see the Faces [Stewart’s band] play in 1975….It is also true that she came backstage afterward, surrounded by an army of security men. But from those meager details, Tony created a saga worth a week of newspaper headlines, in which our eyes had met across a crowded room, we had fallen hopelessly and permanently in love, Susan had invited me to an intimate dinner at the White House.”

 

Hollywood publicists regularly put out rumors about two stars dating to generate a few headlines. “Reality” shows leak every rumor about the latest celebrity under consideration for a job as judge or host, only a few of whom ever get the work. And, in its most insidious form, rumors have swirled for decades about gay leading men who marry women solely to maintain their “manly” images in the public eye, complete with regularly released photos of the “happy couple” in love.

I’m still confused about the Michael Jackson – Lisa Marie Presley marriage, for example. (What was that about?) But their highly-publicized and cringeworthy kiss at the 1994 Video Music Awards certainly created some buzz:

The Nikki Minaj/Mariah Carey video may be real. Or it may be an expertly publicized fake. But I can’t shake the feeling that some publicist got paid a lot of money to leak the “grainy cell phone” video that just happened to be rolling at the moment their “fight” began.

Here’s the bottom line: Next time you hear a salacious rumor centered around an entertainer, be skeptical. Some of the stories might be true. But it’s a strange coincidence that so many of those rumors occur just weeks before a singer’s new album or an actor’s new film is released.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Does American Idol Have A “White Guy” PR Problem?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 23, 2012 – 10:01 pm

The past five winners of American Idol – including tonight’s winner, Phillip Phillips – all have something in common. They’re all white males.

You’d have to go back five years to find a winner who wasn’t. Since Jordin Sparks took the title in 2007, the winners have all been white guys: David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery, and Phillip Phillips.

I have no objection to Idol voters selecting white men as the winners. But I do have a problem with a program that consistently slights superior singers for ones who appeal to the 10-15-year-old female demographic. As a result, the winners are now predictably always “aw shucks” nice guy white male contestants. 

And that creates a PR problem for Idol.

Philip Phillips, winner of this season's American Idol

No one who watched this season can credibly argue that Philip Phillips was the best vocalist. R&B crooner Joshua Ledet, a church-tinged singer who consistently provided a “wow” factor, finished third. That’s like James Brown, Otis Redding, or Sam Cooke finishing third to Huey Lewis, Dave Matthews, or Rob Thomas. They’re all good singers, but the first group of three is in a different league.

The below video is of Phillips singing Time of the Season. Listen to that falsetto and tell me he deserved to be named the best undiscovered singer in the United States.

 

If Idol results were based on merit, Joshua Ledet wouldn’t have been eliminated before Philip Phillips. Here’s his masterful performance of James Browns’ It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.

American Idol’s judges regularly proclaim that their show is, first and foremost, a “singing competition.” The facts don’t bear out their claim. And I’d maintain that the show’s slipping ratings are, in part, a result of the voters’ obvious slant, which renders the show completely predictable.

What can Idol do to give singers who don’t meet the “guitar-playing cute white male with stubble demo” a fighting chance? Here are three ideas:

1. Change The Voting Formula: I suspect that as the show has aged, it’s viewing demographic has narrowed. (As an example, I almost never see the 2,200+ people I follow on Twitter discussing results). Idol can use the same voting formula that The Voice uses; the public gets a 50 percent share of the vote, and the judges get another 50 percent.

2. The Judges Can…Well, Judge: The judges – Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler – are nice. Too nice. By complimenting even mediocre performances and pairing critical feedback with undeserved praise, the viewing audience isn’t able to use the judge’s reactions as a voting guide. They should offer unsparing feedback, audience boos and hurt feelings be damned.

3. More Jimmy Iovine, Please: Idol mentor Jimmy Iovine is a legendary music producer who has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and U2. He tells contestants exactly what he thinks. The problem? Idol doesn’t air his comments until after the voting concludes. They should air his comments before the voting begins so he can help influence voters.

What do you think? Do you agree with my analysis? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Media Training: The Justin Bieber Edition

Written by Brad Phillips on February 24, 2011 – 6:37 am

Justin Bieber, the 16-year-old pop superstar, caused a controversy this week when he shared his political views on controversial topics in a Rolling Stone cover story.  

He’s young, and I can’t fault him for making a few mistakes under the crushing media spotlight (I do, however, question whether his management has invested enough in ongoing media training for their star client).

Justin Bieber Rolling Stone

In the article, Bieber made at least four unforced errors:

1. He Answered Controversial Questions

When asked his opinion on divisive issues – including on abortion, rape, and health care – Bieber willingly answered the reporter. Among other things, he told the interviewer he believes abortion is wrong, even in cases of rape. (Note: his team suggests he was misquoted; Rolling Stone stands behind its story).

To be clear, stars have as much right to express a personal opinion as do the rest of us. But those opinions often come at a price to their careers, and the choice to answer those questions should be deliberate. If Bieber’s goal is to appeal to the widest-possible audience, he should stop answering those questions. If he’s willing to become a star of more limited appeal (Barbra Streisand likely attracts as many tea party members as Toby Keith does progressives), he’s on the right track.

2. He Used Sarcasm, Which Rarely Works In Print

Bieber, a Canadian, expressed a preference for his nation’s health care system. According to the article:

“’I’ll never be an American citizen,’ he says, and adds, half-jokingly, “‘You guys are evil. Canada’s the best country in the world.’”

 

Guess which part of his quote ended up on the cover? I can’t imagine Bieber really thinks Americans are evil, and I’m guessing that his tone of voice and facial expression made that clear. But the printed word does away with inflection, and words themselves are read more literally.

3. He Forgot Who His Audience Was

The Rolling Stone story says:

“Bieber is a heartfelt Christian, but he’s nervous talking about it, and makes sure that I’m a Christian too before he opens up.”

 

Bieber forgot that he shouldn’t have been having a conversation with the reporter, but rather should have been talking to the audience through her. The reporter’s religious sympathies shouldn’t have entered the equation. If he was comfortable sharing his views with everyone, fine. If he wasn’t, he shouldn’t have shared them with the reporter.

4. He Forgot His Background

The article’s author writes that Bieber:

“…starts fiddling with his two computers…he balances it on his knees, opening it up with the intent of typing something, but when he realizes that I’m seeing his wallpaper, a picture of him and Selena against an orangy sunset, he hurriedly shuts it.”

 

Everything a reporter sees is fair game for a story, so interviewees have to more carefully monitor their backgrounds to prevent unwanted facts from leaking out.

American Idol Judgers

A Final Word: American Idol

Tonight, American Idol will cut its roster down to 24 contestants, all of whom will be thrust into the glare of the media spotlight for the first time.

It’s easy to disparage stars as overly-indulged (they often are), but the truth is usually more complicated. These new celebrities are too often unprepared to deal with the media attention that accompanies their sudden rise. They would be wise to remember the lessons in this article, and avoid commenting on controversial topics unless they directly relate to their goals.

You Might Also Enjoy: The 10 Worst Video Media Disasters of 2010

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    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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