Ryan Seacrest scarce, excessive at Olympics

MARY MCNAMARA Updated: August 2, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: August 2, 2012

Where in the world is Ryan Seacrest?

A man who has built a career on sheer ubiquitousness, Seacrest’s much-touted inclusion as a special correspondent for NBC’s Olympic coverage seemed both jarring — enough about these athletes, let’s talk Mariah! — and eerily inevitable. Who would be surprised if he is next seen administering the oath of office come January?

And yet Seacrest’s presence at the London Games has been most notable for its absence.

During early days, as the “Today” team settled in on the Thames, we heard a lot about what Seacrest was going to do (interview athletes, keep track of social media), and watched as he and Matt Lauer palled around. Just, you know, a couple of blokes in London town, not two highly ambitious men who, earlier this year, jokingly circled each other amid rumors (ha, ha) that Seacrest might be vying for Lauer’s job.

But after an initial big showing, Seacrest has gone strangely silent, especially in prime time. On the “Today” show, he’s joined the regular team to participate in a few group events — the “Today” team tries racewalking! Lauer makes on Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed! — and, on Wednesday, offer a pre-taped interview about gymnast Daniel Leyva’s relationship with his personal coach who is also his stepdad.

But if NBC executives hoped Seacrest would bring ratings magic, they may be disappointed — early numbers indicate that while up from last week, and once again ahead of “Good Morning America,” “Today” is falling short of past Olympic numbers.

In prime time, Seacrest’s role is even less clear. NBC’s decision to use his pre-taped heart to heart with Michael Phelps and fam in place of Akram Khan’s tribute to the 2005 London bombing victims during the opening ceremony probably didn’t help — through no fault of his own, Seacrest became the first big target for critics and coverage-haters, an instant symbol of NBC’s self-referential and often overly American-centric tone.

Phelps went on to fall short in his first event, as did favored gymnast Jordyn Wieber soon after Seacrest interviewed her and teammate Gabby Douglas. A Seacrest curse? Not exactly. On Tuesday, Seacrest showed up in prime time, using a pre-taped interview with Phelps and his coach to introduce the men’s 200 meter butterfly; Phelps took silver and tied for the world record number of Olympic medals (he would break the record later that day).

But even by the relatively low standards of the genre, none of his interviews have been great, highlighting not only his lack of sports knowledge but also the mystifyingly successful Seacrest brand of blandocity. Though inarguably one of the hardest workers in the industry, he is, on television anyway, a personality marked mostly by lack of personality, a greeter more than a host, a scrim more than a player.

Honed by years spent riding herd on the emotional maelstrom that is “American Idol,” he has developed an air of friendly but purely passing interest. He’s that hand on your shoulder that could mean encouragement or sympathy or just a gentle reminder to keep things moving because, you know, you had your shot and we need the room.

There is a steeliness to Seacrest that allows him to hold his own against the likes of Simon Cowell or, for that matter, Bob Costas, but its origins are unclear — he is neither artist nor entertainer; he is certainly not a journalist. He is a survivor but one is never quite certain to what end. Surely it cannot be to ask a bronze medal winner how he is feeling.

During his time with the American women gymnasts, he did gamely attempt a split (something Savannah Guthrie wisely refused to do) but he also, rather embarrassingly, told them he had “personally” passed along their affection for his pal Justin Bieber, who in turn would be sending them “a package.” This kicked off a weirdly high Olympics profile for the singer who has, thus far, tweeted congratulations to gold-winning swimmer Missy Franklin and Canadian gymnast Dominique Pegg.

Take that, British equestrian Zara Phillips. Sure, you have two princes and a duchess watching you, but Seacrest delivered Bieber.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Then he faded into space, a far-flung special-correspondent moon in the solar system of Lauer, a man so secure in his pasha-like status that he is not ashamed to have fellow “Today” hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, left behind in New York, swoon over how handsome he looked in his linen jacket. Kotb later joined the gang in London, sparking rumors that Guthrie wasn’t cutting it, which NBC executives vigorously denied.

But then “Today” has long been Lauer’s show, something never more clear than when it’s on the road — the Olympics may have been Guthrie’s opportunity to shine in her new role as co-host of “Today,” but so far most of the heavy lifting involves Lauer, sometimes with Guthrie, sometimes with another member of the team. Lauer and Al Roker often band together to “try” the sports and it was, notably, Meredith Vieira, not Guthrie, who accompanied Lauer in the commentary of the opening ceremony.

A word about that: Can we simply issue a ban on ceremony commentary? Did we learn nothing from the high-natter factor of the royal wedding?

The opening ceremony of the Olympics is not the Rose Parade — we do not need to know how many pounds of earth were used or to have the history of Mary Poppins explained. We just want to watch the show.

It’s strange that in a world where everyone seems to agree that Olympic coverage is overwrought and overdone, where the uncontracted millions are happy to provide their own commentary through social media that NBC’s response is to bring in more — Seacrest, Kotb, John McEnroe, Jenna Bush. The gap between the record-breaking prime-time ratings and the not-so-much “Today” show may wind up making the point better than a thousand tweets at #shutupmattlauer.

The Olympics, by their very definition, exist on a plane uncontrollable by host or producer. The moments to remember are rarely anticipated, much less scripted: Phelps gaping in disbelief that he came in fourth, Missy Franklin’s dazzling smile as she won the gold, Aly Raisman’s parents leaning this way and that as she performed on the unevens, Hope Solo dissing Brandi Chastain’s coverage, Abby Wambach’s black eye, Dana Vollmer’s world record.

And even the sight of those two princes and that duchess, humanized for a few seconds by untidy hair and sunglasses, cheering on their cousin whose horse lost a shoe. These are the moments that make the Olympics worth watching.

The rest of it is, in the end, just wallpaper, which Seacrest’s inclusion neither made nor marred. But as is often the case with his strange and hyperbolic career, you do wonder: What was the point?

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Mary McNamara: mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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©2012 Los Angeles Times

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