'Idol' heads can't imagine the show without Ryan Seacrest. Can you?

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Image Credit: M Becker/Getty Images

As James Hibberd reported yesterday, Ryan Seacrest’s megabucks American Idol hosting contract will be up at the end of this season. With rumors swirling that Seacrest might defect for a hosting gig on the Today show, Idol fans are left to wonder what the show will be like without the tried-and-true Seacrest to navigate them through the latest pack of hopefuls — not to mention months of auditions leading up to the performances. At the network’s presser Sunday, Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly and Mike Darnell — an Idol producer and Fox’s president of alternative entertainment — both admitted they couldn’t imagine the show without Seacrest. But can you?

It’s hard to believe it was nine years ago this month that Seacrest rose from relatively obscurity, out of the ashes of Brian Dunkleman. In season 2, Seacrest took a role in which many others have coasted (I’m looking at you, Steve Jones) or proven utterly forgettable (Lauren Sánchez, anyone?), and made his gig unmistakably a one-man show. Hosts are generally meant to be charming up to a point, agreeing with the judges (if they speak up at all) and sympathetically fawning over the contestants during harsh criticism. Such paint-by-numbers hosting was never for Seacrest.

From day 1, he made his personality known. He developed a relationship with the contestants that was familial, not fawning. As for the judges, he never met a chance to disagree with Simon Cowell that he didn’t like. The back-and-forth between the two of them became epic (if at times verging on icky in its homophobic undertones). In other words, Seacrest’s hosting style has been anything but cookie-cutter, and it was his strength of character as a host that allowed him to somehow maintain objectivity and credibility while also making it all about himself.

Love him or hate him, the man has left an indelible impression on Idol — from his struggles with highlights addiction to his attempts to high-five a blind guy. (Seriously, though, I kid only because I love.) My mind is still boggled by the injustice that he has lost the Emmy to Jeff Probst four times in a row. (Four times!) As much as it’s easy to throw shade at Seacrest for his unparalleled success, his inhuman confidence, or his rampant ambition (the man has 736 jobs!), you have to admit he is good at what he does. Good really doesn’t cover it. He is a pro.

So can Idol go on without Seacrest? Last year at this time, no one thought the show would survive without Cowell, but it stayed strong in season 10. Likewise, when the aforementioned Sánchez left So You Think You Can Dance on maternity leave, Cat Deeley stepped in and is now a competitor with Seacrest and Probst for that annual Emmy statuette. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of show where the host’s departure has had a palpable, negative impact.

Then again, just as he changed the game by injecting himself in Idol season 2, perhaps Seacrest could be the exception that proves the rule. Think about it this way: I challenge you to remember Tom Bergeron’s best quips from the earliest seasons of Dancing With the Stars. Do you have as many fond memories of Top Chef‘s Padma Lakshmi as you do of Seacrest? And, sure, your Tyra Bankses and your Heidi Klums of the world have signature phrases, but do any of them involve their own names like “Seacrest, out?” (And, no, “Ty-over” does not count. It’s the “fetch” of reality TV.) Certainly, Seacrest has proven a formidable producer and business mind (ahem, Kardashian world domination), but is he so strong a presence that his absence could take down Idol, the very definition of a ratings juggernaut?

That all remains to be seen over the next couple of months. Seacrest confirmed at yesterday’s event that he has “a deal with NBC Universal… in negotiations” but stayed mum as to how, if at all, it would involve Today. He vowed to focus on hosting Idol this season and shooed off speculation that he might join NBC’s rival show, The Voice. Meanwhile Reilly insisted that Seacrest’s impending contract negotiations will “come to conclusion pretty quickly.”

What do you think, PopWatchers? Is Seacrest essential to Idol? Can you envision Wednesday and Thursday nights without him? Or are you looking forward to the day when he bids his last “Seacrest, out”? How do you think he would fare as a Today host?

Read more:
‘American Idol’ judges and producers diss ‘The Voice’
‘American Idol': Does reality TV’s recent glut of singing competitions have you more or less excited for season 11?
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