The Man, The Brand, The Plan To Rule TV

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

Don't bother accusing Ryan Seacrest of ambitiousness, megalomania or delusions of grandeur. Don't charge him with furtively plotting to become the next Dick Clark, either, once Dick has turned in his dimples. Seacrest is plotting, all right, but there's nothing furtive about it.

"One reason I started doing New Year's Eve on Fox five years ago was because I wanted to create the perception that I could be the next Dick Clark," says the 33-year-old host of Fox's "American Idol," television's megahit. " 'American Idol' is my 'American Bandstand.' Dick and I are actually partners in that New Year's Eve show."

Ryan Seacrest's secret plan to take over the world? Nothing secret about it. "I had a total, 100 percent strategy to be the Dick Clark for our generation," he says, "to be the Merv Griffin for our generation, to be the Larry King for our generation."

Whoa. What about our next Oprah Winfrey? Seacrest already went through his Casey Kasem phase, when he was 8 and making audio tapes in his bedroom. Other kids were playing dodgeball and little Ryan was plotting his career. "It was a blessing for me that I knew exactly what my path was when I was 9 years old," he says. "Everything I did, every detail, every step I took I knew was a step closer to what I wanted.

"I knew there'd be about 3 million steps, but I also knew I had to get through them."

As long as he's being the next this and the next that, how about aiming really, really high -- the Next Regis? That might be blasphemy. Besides, the current Regis would say he's too young to need a "next." Might today's Regis, however, see something of the young Regis in Seacrest and his savvy maneuvers?

"Well, Regis wasn't that lucky," Philbin says from his office in New York. "It was a different time" back then.

"Now there must be a hundred guys like Ryan Seacrest running around trying to break in and make it big in the business," Philbin says. "And this is the one that broke through. He's a guy who has trained himself and made it happen -- the right guy at the right time." Luck might have had something to do with it, but Seacrest was, and is, nothing if not determined.

Seacrest has become a household name at the whoosh speed of winners in the "Idol" talent hunt, except that no matter what happens, Seacrest comes back next week and next year. "We've got contracts that go this season and then two more years," he says of himself and the show's three judges: the I'm-so-hip Randy "Pitchy Dawg" Jackson, the breathlessly and sometimes nonsensically enthused Paula Abdul and the top-drawer, top-draw judge, snide Brit Simon Cowell, whose spatting with Seacrest is one of the show's decorative gimmicks.

Although "Seacrest" might sound like a waterfront retirement village, there's nothing remotely sleepy about him. It's not that he's multi-talented; he's anti-talented, not a performer but a professional "personality," the latest variation on a type as old as broadcasting: the guy who stands there and introduces the acts. He's a low-key cheerleader who keeps the show moving and, with the judges as natural foils, allies himself with the audience and the contestants, never threatening to upstage the performers, even if he could.

For all that, he stops mercifully short of outright sycophancy, a la Ed McMahon. Never a "You are correct, sir," even to Jackson. Part of the Seacrest shtick is coming across as a little too cool for his role, yet a good enough sport to play along. Seacrest isn't lovable, nor foolish enough to try to be. He's just aiming for tolerable -- bull's-eye.

What makes Ryan reign? If he's just a coldly calculating career-boy socking away as much dough as he can, there's certainly plenty to sock. He's paid an estimated $12.5 million annually just for hosting "Idol," not counting all the ancillary gigs he's lined up. Among them: a three-year, $21 million deal with E! Entertainment Network to host its special-event programming and take command of virtually all of E!'s "red-carpet" coverage -- and these days every dry cleaner in Los Angeles has a red-carpet opening. Not that Seacrest will show up any time an old moth-eaten red carpet is unrolled. He can be picky about his rugs.

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