Million Second Quiz: Is the Ryan Seacrest Era Ending?

He's still the host with the most, but there's evidence his star may be slipping

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Ryan Seacrest / "The Million Second Quiz"
Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images

Ryan Seacrest at "The Million Second Quiz" Cocktail Reception on Aug. 28, 2013, in New York

Usually, the point of a TV quiz show is to see how the contestants fare. NBC’s new Million Second Quiz is no exception, but its contestants aren’t the only people who have a lot riding on the show. Million Second Quiz may be evidence that the end could be in sight for the era of Seacrest ubiquity.

The show, which debuted on Sept. 9 and will run for a consecutive million seconds—a little under two weeks—is airing during primetime almost every night while the contest continues online. So far, it hasn’t proved to be a big hit for the network or for Seacrest. Initial ratings were pretty good but not stellar: 6.5 million people overall for its Sept. 9 debut, a number The Hollywood Reporter calls “soft” even considering that it aired opposite a big football game, and slightly fewer on the second night (with a slight bump later in the hour that THR suggests may be attributable to people flipping to NBC in anticipation of President Obama’s speech); last night’s ratings are not yet available. MSQ is also widely regarded as a gauge of how a network could incorporate two-screen interactivity into a show, since viewers are encouraged to play along on an app for the chance to participate on TV. But, despite viewer numbers lower than what might have been expected, given its huge promotional rollout, the servers were overwhelmed and the app crashed during the premiere:

Capacity had to be expanded before night two and Seacrest had to apologize on-air—and that just days after he was booed while hosting the NFL kick-off.

Of course, Seacrest has no shortage of things on his plate: there’s American Top 40 and his other radio show On Air with Ryan Seacrest; there’s his personal production company, Ryan Seacrest Productions, which has credits on dozens of TV titles, including the Kardashian dynasty; there’s Dick Clark’s Primetime New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest; and there is, of course, American Idol, which will return for its 13th season in Jan. 2014.

But, while the New Year’s broadcast had its highest ratings ever this past Dec. 31 and AT40 is broadcast on stations across the country, American Idol is slipping. Last May, the show hit an all-time ratings low.The narrative about the once-dominant competition is less “can’t-fail television juggernaut” than it is “a show that might be saved by new judges.”

Which is a problem for Ryan Seacrest.

Ever since Idol began, Seacrest’s “Q score”—a metric for celebrity likability—has been tracked by the folks at Marketing Evaluations. A pattern has emerged. Henry Schafer, the company’s executive VP, says that Seacrest’s awareness level is consistently sky-high: a full 68% of consumers over the age of five know who Ryan Seacrest is. “He’s definitely well known by all segments of the population. Those are much higher than the norms for hosts of shows,” says Schafer. “The typical show host has an awareness of 32%.”

His actual Q Score, however, which measures likability rather than pure visibility, has not been so steady.

“What we have seen over the years is that his appeal will fluctuate with American Idol being on and off the air,” says Schafer. “He clearly peaks when Idol is on, in terms of appeal; his awareness stays roughly the same.”

Early this year, during the AI season, he had a Q Score of 17 among adult women (average for TV hosts is 13 among that segment). Historically, the pattern remains the same. In 2012 when the show was on the air, his overall Q Score was a super-high 22; by the summer, when it was updated, he had dropped to a 13.

(WATCHSacha Baron Cohen Dumps ‘Ashes’ on Ryan Seacrest at Oscars Red Carpet)

And, unsurprisingly, Idol’s ratings make a difference. During Season 12, the season with that record ratings low, he hovered at 12. By the end of this summer, he had dropped as low as a 9.

“It looks like the emotional connection he has with consumers and TV viewers is very much tied to the show itself,” says Schafer.

In other words, while everyone knows who Ryan Seacrest is, his popularity is still tied up with American Idol, and his fortunes in that arena depend on the show’s success.

Even though Idol is no slouch, it does show signs of winding down at some point. And, when Seacrest’s contract with the show was renewed in 2012—for a cool $15 million a year—it was reupped for only two years, which means that after Season 13 he has an out. It’s an out that, given the show’s ratings, he could conceivably want to take. Since his likability is tied tothat gig, his decision to leave (or the show’s cancellation) could hurt his career, even despite his gazillion other jobs.

If Million Second Quiz had been a blockbuster from the beginning, it could have been a sign that Seacrest didn’t need Idol anymore. (Well, he definitely doesn’t need the show anymore—his radio work reportedly makes him $25 million each year—but he still benefits from it, clearly.) So far, however, MSQ has not proven to be a vehicle to which the host might want to hitch his Q Score.

But the show has about a week to turn things around, with the network asking for patience—and, as history has shown, a bet against Seacrest is often a bad bet. (Just ask Brian Dunkleman, whose credits since deciding to leave Idol include a one-episode stint on Ghost Whisperer.) Jeffrey Katzenberg has called him the“single hardest-working person” he knows and it’s hard not to admire Seacrest for his dedication to the job. As detailed in a 2009 Esquire profile, he wakes up early, he works all day and he’s a well-oiled hosting machine.

Unlike the music-world hopefuls of Idol, Seacrest has publicly and consistently aspired to be exactly what he is: a host. For Ryan Seacrest, MSQ and AI may well be labors of love. But, even if he wants to keeping hosting every show forever, it now seems possible—more possible than it has in years—that there may come a day that not every show will want him as host.