America could soon be waking up to Ryan Seacrest. After months of rumors that NBC execs were exploring hiring the American Idol host as an eventual replacement for Matt Lauer on Today, significant conversations are now taking place about making it happen as part of a larger deal between Seacrest and NBC parent company Comcast.
While the mention of Seacrest's name is likely to make TV-news purists cringe, Today has a history of hiring anchors without serious journalistic backgrounds. Prior to their anchor stints, Hugh Downs was a game-show host and a sidekick to Jack Paar on The Tonight Show. Bryant Gumbel was plucked from NBC Sports, while Lauer toiled on lightweight local talk shows.
The difference is that Seacrest is firmly entrenched in the celebrity culture of Hollywood through his work on Idol and as producer of E! Entertainment Television's Kardashian reality shows. His presence could alter the balance between serious news and entertainment on Today, where there is already internal grumbling over the increase in tabloid content.
But Seacrest does have a reverence for broadcasting and a kind of self-deprecating humor that goes down easy with morning viewers. "I think he'd be fascinating," says one veteran of the morning-news wars.
The courting of Seacrest is also an indication that NBC wants Lauer, whose contract is up in January 2013, to make a decision on his future. He's been telling colleagues that after 15 years at the anchor desk, he's ready to move on. While Today remains a solid No. 1 in the ratings, industry observers believe Lauer doesn't have the same on-air rapport with coanchor Ann Curry that he did with Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira. If he decides to leave, we'll know where in the world he could go — NBC would offer him a lucrative deal for a syndicated talk show.