Yesterday I was as close to Ryan Seacrest as I'll probably ever get. I was quoted in a story in the New York Times about rumors Seacrest might succeed Matt Lauer as host of Today on NBC. The celebrity beat is not my normal bailiwick, but the Seacrest story raises some serious questions about Comcast's commitment to news.
A year ago, when Comcast was pushing through its multibillion-dollar mega-merger with NBC (with an assist from future in-house lobbyist Meredith Attwell Baker), the company promised that it wouldn't interfere with the news operations. It didn't say anything about possibly abandoning them altogether.
Ryan Seacrest might be great at shilling for Ford and Coke in between warbling amateur musical segments, and he seems to be a decent stand-in for Casey Kasem on America's Top 40. But are we really supposed to believe that qualifies him to interview presidents and national leaders? Is Seacrest going to anchor from Kabul or Baghdad or lead coverage during moments of crisis like terrorist attacks?
No question Matt Lauer does the soft-focus Hollywood interviews and cooking segments, too. But at least he has some track record as a journalist.
There's already far too much shallow, horse-race coverage of politics and issues of national importance. Instead of worrying about this trend and what it might mean for the health of our democracy, the new owner of NBC seems determined to take an already shrinking news division and turn it into a reality-TV set. I assume it's just a matter of time before Paula Abdul rolls her chair in next to David Gregory on Meet the Press.
Comcast was singing a different, er, tune last year when it was trying to get government sign-off on the NBC takeover. The company even won support from the deal in part on a promise to help support local news nonprofits. This was a calculated move to get the deal approved, but Comcast does seem to be supporting some worthy partnerships. Still, as my colleague Josh Stearns has detailed, these arrangements hardly outweigh the damage of that deal to local news and independent voices.
So which story tells us more about Comcast's priorities -- Seacrest or the nascent nonprofit partnerships? Well, imagine if instead of wooing Seacrest, Comcast-NBC took all the money he'll make and redirected it to newsgathering. How many investigative projects and foreign bureaus could that cash fund?
I guess we shouldn't be too surprised that Comcast thinks Seacrest is a natural fit for the newsroom. After all, Comcast also thinks Chelsea Clinton, who has always shied away from the press, is qualified to be a reporter because she's the daughter of a former president and the current secretary of state. And for balance, Comcast has Jenna Bush and Meghan McCain on the payroll, too.
Why stop with Seacrest? Once upon a time in the 1950s, NBC let a monkey co-host Today with Dave Garroway. And the ratings were way better back then.
J. Fred Muggs, call your agent.