Why Is It So Hard to Be a Reality-TV Host?
To anyone who “kept up” with Khloé Kardashian’s trajectory as co-host of The X Factor, the reality star’s firing this week from the show hardly comes as a surprise. She had no live TV experience, no hosting experience, and no musical experience. She was a deer in headlights in every sense of the phrase, a wide-eyed Bambi fumbling to gather her legs under her in a job she couldn’t have been more ill suited to fill.
Her eyes would dart back and forth between cameras, unsure of where she should be looking. She’d literally shout at viewers, thinking she had to be heard over the screaming live audience. A fixed, terrified smile never left her face as she robotically recited whatever lines were being fed to her by producers. “Wow. What a phenomenal night,” she’d offer in a staccato deadpan. Certainly, there was no meaningful connection being made with the contestants. “I’m so nervous and I’m not ... even ... any of these ... groups ... right now,” she once lifelessly shrugged as a handful of competitors awaited their fates.
She’s now the second presenter in two years to be fired from The X Factor, following hunky Brit Steve Jones, who was pink-slipped after the show’s mess of a first season. But Kardashian is hardly the only reality-TV host to face the wrath of critics. Dancing With the Stars’s Brooke Burke has been dubbed Brookebot. Tyra Banks’s insanity on America’s Next Top Model is, at this point, legendary. Not many people watched the now cancelled dating show Ready for Love, but those who did were more than ready to trash Giuliana and Bill Rancic as hosts. There are more reality shows on TV than ever. Why is it so hard to find a good host?
For one, it’s a deceptively difficult job. Call it the Ryan Seacrest effect, because the American Idol maestro makes it look so easy, but “hosting a reality show is actually a really challenging job that requires a lot of talent,” said Andy Dehnart, editor of RealityBlurred.com. “People think you can just put someone with a pretty face or who has been on camera in another context on stage and expect them to be a great host, but that’s not true at all.”
Hosting live TV requires a specific set of skills. Chief among them: the ability to juggle. “You’re dealing with eight different things at the same time,” said television host (MTV’s TRL, Say What? Karaoke) and writer Dave Holmes. Producers are barking into an earpiece to speed things up or slow things down. Production assistants are crossing things off cue cards, and teleprompter copy is constantly changing. There are celebrity judges to wrangle and emotionally wrecked contestants to coax coherent interviews from. “And you have make it all look smooth,” Holmes says. “You shouldn’t be able to tell that someone’s shouting your ear. You should be the one calm person in the total hurricane of chaos.”
To her credit, Kardashian was aware that she was struggling—to say the least—with settling into her role. “I had to watch the first and second episodes back. It was kind of a wakeup call,” she told The Daily Beast less than a month after making her X Factor debut. “I am talking a little too loud. I do look kind of stiff. If I say the word ‘amazing’ one more time, I might kill myself. There’s little stuff you don’t realize when you’re up there.”
Even if a host manages to successfully ringlead the reality-TV three-ring circus, there’s the added challenge of doing so with a relatable, heck, even just discernible personality. Kardashian, Jones, Burke, Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi, The Biggest Loser’s Alison Sweeney, The Voice’s Carson Daly—they’ve all been compared to, at various times, robots.
Then, of course, there are the easily mocked feats of cluelessness, like when former Dancing With the Stars host Samantha Harris routinely thrust a microphone into deaf actress Marlee Matlin’s face during interviews, or when Kardashian made a joke about Simon Cowell loving her nipples.
But firing Simon Cowell–esque barbs at flailing celebri-hosts like Kardashian might not even be fair—they’re merely the byproduct of misguided stargazing on the part of these shows’ producers. The idea, presumably, is that booking a “big” name to emcee a reality-TV show will bring in more viewers. But rarely, if ever, does a show see a spike in ratings because a Kardashian, a former Saved by the Bell star, or Mariah Carey’s husband signs on to host.
“It’s been proven time and again that hiring celebrities as hosts doesn’t make a bit of a difference ratingswise,” Holmes says. “No one says, ‘Oh, Joey Lawrence hosts Splash? I’m gonna give that show a try!’”
In fact, as was the case with The X Factor, the whole celebrity-casting process is often even counterproductive. Say alarmingly attached Blossom fans are convinced to watch Splash because of their beloved Lawrence’s involvement. In all likelihood, they’ll endure one episode of his awkward camera presence and clunky transitions and be like, “Whoa!,” and never tune in again.
“Maybe 24 people in all of America tuned in to The X Factor because of Khloé Kardashain,” Holmes says. “But a lot of people who were going to tune in because they like singing competitions maybe tuned in and saw how clunky she was and decided to stop watching.”
The focus on hiring celebrity hosts is especially confusing, considering that the stalwarts in the field—Seacrest, Survivor’s Jeff Probst—actually weren’t well known when they debuted, but proved their worth to audiences through their obvious skill sets. In fact, being a celebrity in the first place defeats the job’s very purpose. “The job of the host is to keep things moving and stay out of the way and not bring a lot of attention to him or herself,” says Holmes. “Be the traffic cop. The traffic cop is not driving any cares. He’s just telling people where to go.” Bringing people who already are famous into the role is a mistake, because they’re conditioned to seek out attention for themselves.
So who gets it right? “Ryan Seacrest is the best out there,” says Dehnart. “He does it effortlessly. Tom Bergeron (Dancing With the Stars) is also great, because he has a winking connection with the audience and doesn’t treat it very seriously. It makes the audience feel better about watching something so ridiculous.”
And then there’s So You Think You Can Dance’s Cat Deeley, who is so openly invested in the competition that she can be seen tearing up when competitors are voted off. “She’s so happy and easygoing that it’s just fun to watch,” says Melinda Doolittle, a former American Idol hopeful who now does commentary on the show for TVLine.com. “You just feel like she’s not reading off any teleprompter and she’s really invested in the contestants.” To say the least: each year Deeley hosts a Fourth of July barbecue at her home for current and former Dance contestants.
But the truth is the Seacrests, the Bergerons, and the Deeleys are the personable, breezy diamonds in the awkward, robotic rough. “The real example of how hard it is to be a good reality-TV host is that there have been so many competition shows in the past 13 years, and I can’t think of who the hosts were for most of them, because they weren’t memorable,” Dehnart says. “Monica Lewinsky hosted Mr. Personality on Fox, but beyond I don’t remember a thing about that show or her hosting.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that a show like The X Factor is doomed if it opts for a Kardashian type over a Seacrest type. “I think the host is a leg of a table,” Dehnart says. “You pull out a leg, and it will be really unstable really fast. It won’t fall over completely, but it’s a critical part.”