Things seemed simpler in college. They were night and day, black and white, yes and oh please no.
To wit, one of my early journalism classes, in which we learned about what's called the "gatekeeping" role of journalists. I don't know what they call it now or if it's even being mentioned on university campuses anymore, but the concept is this: Journalists (here broadly defined as anyone whose vocation requires them to gather or report the news) decide what goes on the air, in the paper, on the Web, etc. And, they decide what does not. They were the gates through which information passed that empowered people to make decisions to plan their day, their week, their lives. It was an awesome power and responsibility the gravity of which made the meager pay worth the trouble.
(And yes, I know social media changed all that. But put that aside for a moment.)
So if you're an old school journalist, I imagine your eyebrow was furrowed last week when news leaked that Ryan Seacrest - best known for his role on American Idol, the show that foisted this guy on the American public - was in talks with NBC to become the host of the Today Show, ostensibly to replace Matt Lauer.
I've actually grown to respect Lauer. I know many in my circles who would decry a perceived liberal bias on his part, but over the years he's become someone I've come to trust, someone who executes his profession with aplomb. Lauer exudes a certain credibility when I see him interviewing the day's newsmakers. And well, he should. Lauer's credentials are indeed what you'd expect for someone in his role.
Seacrest is what he is - from what I understand, one of the hardest working men in Hollywood. And while a strong work ethic is laudable, it tends to carry a big asterisk when the fruits of the labor are rotten to the core. For his part, Seacrest's credentials are also what you'd expect for someone moving and shaking in Beverly Hills.
Which is to say, the idea of Seacrest as a respectable journalistic figure is...well, do I even need to finish that thought? Imagine this picture, only the guy on the left is asking the global influencer on the right whether he thought Randy was too hard on the semi-finalists.
I still have enough faith in the folks at The Rock to believe they haven't overlooked the dire lack of journalistic chops in this instance. Which only begs the question: Why Seacrest? It's really anyone's guess, but you can probably assume it has something to do with wooing a younger viewer. It usually does.
If that's the case, it may be that NBC is correct in its targeting. But their strategy is flawed. Leveraging Seacrest's entertainment background is the wrong play to attract long-term viewership to the show. While it's true the younger set is probably trending away from Today, they're not doing so because there isn't enough fluff. They're doing so because social media has empowered them to become their own gatekeepers. The citizenry now decides what information is relevant and what is not, and behaves accordingly. And shows like Today, Good Morning America, and all the rest are left chasing their audience.
It's a trend the evidence of which we've seen for several years now. The Iranian elections in 2009 may have been the first and best example, though there are likely others that preceded it. Assuming the millennial is a scatter-brained, deep-as-a-frisbee airhead is a naive presupposition that can quickly make you irrelevant. They care about the happenings of the world; they just learn about them in a way that can slip through Nielsen's cracks.
To be sure, it's still possible a Ryan Seacrest-hosted Today Show would enjoy at least a temporary bump in viewership. But it's worth pointing out that the industry has been wrong about this kind of thing before.
If it's serious about Seacrest in Lauer's current role, NBC should launch a full-on marketing/PR blitz to establish some modicum of credibility for him. Maybe even send him to j-school. I hear things are pretty cut-and-dry there.