"Are we allowed to swear?” asked producer Craig Piligian upon gathering for a conversation with his reality TV cohorts at Milk Studios in Hollywood on June 2. Sure, why not? Television’s most freewheeling format lends itself so well to a no-holds-barred discussion about its most zeitgeisty programs. Ryan Seacrest (American Idol, Keeping Up With the Kardashians), 37; Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers), 54; Cat Deeley (So You Think You Can Dance), 35; Alison Sweeney (The Biggest Loser), 35; Craig Piligian (Dirty Jobs, American Chopper), 54; and Carson Daly (The Voice), 38, come clean about the perils of hosting and producing unscripted series, from the Kardashians to weirdest fan moments to their own guilty pleasures.
The Hollywood Reporter: What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make on live TV?
Carson Daly: For me it was: Do I ask Mariah Carey to leave the MTV studios one July afternoon in 2001 when she came in without being booked on the show? Normally when Mariah came on Total Request Live, it was very regimented. In this case, she came out pushing an ice cream cart, in short-shorts, reading poetry.
Cat Deeley: I do that every weekend. (Laughter.)
Daly: It was like, at what expense are you getting good live TV?
Ryan Seacrest: Every episode of Idol is tough. Something goes wrong, there are no cues, and you have to play it off. I’ll go to break and ask, “Did I get that right?”
Deeley: If you do make a mistake and handle it with a bit of charm and self-deprecation, it really endears you to the audience. I’ve had everything go wrong, from falling over to dropping the microphone. If you laugh and carry on, people enjoy it.
Alison Sweeney: That’s the point of live TV. You want it to feel that at any moment something could go wrong!
Thom Beers: I’ve hosted some of my own talk shows. One time, I’m moderating this discussion, and the two guys start beating the crap out of each other. I’m sitting here going: “If I sit here, I’m going to look like a big wuss. If I jump in, I’m going to get my ass kicked.” And I jumped in. I got a good right to the jaw.
Daly: It’s dangerous!
Deeley: I’ve never been punched.
Seacrest: I’ve only been crushed by Ruben Studdard and his brother. (Laughter.) They sandwiched me. I think it has to do with my lack of height and size. I’m like a toy.
THR: Craig, you make so-called “testosterone TV.” What is a crazy moment on one of your shows that never made it on the air?
Craig Piligian: I had an incident with the American Chopper guys. It was wintertime, and I was supposed to apologize to them about something and wasn’t going to do it. They were inside a Winnebago and were making me wait outside. They had a big security guard. I’m freezing my ass off. I was out there two f—ing hours waiting. And I said, “F— this!” and opened the door, went inside and said, “Lock the f—ing door, leave the security guy out there.” I told Paul [Teutal] Sr.: “We are going to have a rough time here because it’s me against you guys. You guys better really be prepared for this.”
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Deeley: I’m terrified just listening to this.
Daly: This moment is now the toughest moment for me. (Laughter.) Who won?
Piligian: Everybody got really quiet for a moment because they thought I was a little nuts.
Beers: You have to be.
Piligian: We settled the score right there and went on for 10 seasons. That could have been a nice moment on TV, but it didn’t work out that way.
Beers: I did that with the Ice Road Truckers guys. All of a sudden they are like, “OK, we are going on strike.” I stood up, “Bring it on! Let’s do it. Come on.” Like this. Network people saying, “Are they going to fight? We don’t fight on television!”
Piligian: Thom’s and my slates are kind of the same. There are tough guys who want to know if you can take a shot.
Seacrest: You guys employ psychopaths. That’s your problem. (Laughter.) I’m just standing next to Clay Aiken. Less intense.
Beers: In season two of Monster Garage, Jesse James was sitting in a car welding. I cleared the entire studio and said, “I want to know: When did I become an asshole?”
Piligian: I was doing Survivor: Africa, and we wanted to do something with f—ing camels. So we went to this remote place where this guy trains camels. I’m tired. I’ve been in Africa for 3½ f—ing months, and I ask, “So how do you make them do what you want them to do?” He takes a baseball bat to the f—ing camel’s knees to get it to go down. I turn to [executive producer] Tom Shelly and go: “Dude. We can’t use camels on Survivor. We can’t have this guy hitting these camels with baseball bats.”
Seacrest: No one tells a story like you tell a story. (Laughter.)
Piligian: I told Mark Burnett, “We aren’t using f—ing camels.”
Seacrest: Is [Jeff] Probst high maintenance? Does he have a mirror in his tent?
Daly: He’s not here!
Seacrest: Yeah. Where is he? He’s joining us via satellite.
THR: The story brings up a good point about ethical dilemmas in reality TV. Is there something you caught on camera that made you say: “You know what? This is probably not a good idea for us to show.”
Piligian: We did a show called Jousting on History. And one of our jousters, a big Australian guy, the horse stepped on his foot. He had a steel glove on and mashed the horse in the face. They sent me the video, and we took the guy off the show.
Seacrest: That’s a good decision. I remember looking at the raw footage of Kourtney [Kardashian] having Mason, the baby. I’d never seen a delivery in that much detail. Half of me was interested, but I was shocked that she essentially reached down and delivered her own baby. And I was like, “How much are we going to show of this?” And I realized that they were more qualified women to make this decision. She would have loved for us to air the entire thing. But I remember thinking, “How far do we go?”
Daly: Right. What’s the edit point? At blood, usually!
Sweeney: We’ve had awkward moments. Obesity is largely about terrible tragedies that happen and the circumstances that lead contestants to that point. When we do home visits, producers make some tough calls. You want to help people at home relate to it but have to protect our contestants.
Beers: My biggest challenge was how much to show of Captain Phil’s death on Deadliest Catch. I also wrestled with how to handle drug abuse by one of the sons, too. The network said they didn’t want to touch on that. And we said: “We are not taking that out. You need for Phil to have forgiveness at the end. It’s integral.” And they basically said: “No. You cut it out or we’ll cut it out.” And I said, “Well, then you are going to cut it out because — and, as a matter of fact, I’m delivering this show two hours before it airs — because you will never cut it.” It was a stalemate. Then trying to figure out how much to show of Phil. At the end, it was just tragic. It took us weeks just to get through the edit …
Daly: You guys did a great job.
Beers: … breaking down in tears. I watched three minutes of it and said, “I can’t watch this.” Trying to find that balance, where you let the sons tell the stories of how he died as opposed to watching Captain Phil die. It was much more powerful.
THR: What kind of notes are the rest of you getting from your networks?
Sweeney: They are a big part of decisions. I think we are looking to tell the best stories. But [to Daly] it is NBC …
Daly: We represent the peacock over here. (Laughter.)
Seacrest: I represent the peacock, too!
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Daly: You represent the whole table! Ryan’s head should be right here, floating. He is the epicenter of all media. (Laughter.)
Seacrest: I like live TV because you get your notes afterwards.
Sweeney: Do you wear an earpiece when you are live?
Seacrest: I don’t.
Sweeney: He doesn’t care what the producers think. (Laughter.)
Deeley: I never used those until I came to America. Always somebody in my ear!
Seacrest: It’s so distracting.
Daly: But a necessary evil. There are 25 cameras! A host has to know what’s happening. “One of the contestant’s mothers is crying.” The producers will tip me off, and I can bring it to the home audience … have more eyes on the floor.
Deeley: We have a great prompter guy. I can veer off script and come back to it. And it’s almost like he can read my mind. And it’s the same with the producer that I have in my ear. However, the most important thing is to be in the moment.
Seacrest: When you lose that moment, it’s obvious.
Sweeney: Ryan, when I was on your radio show, you would literally be having a full conversation with me and you were doing other things, like typing “Hi” to your mom. And then I get in my car like 10 seconds later and the whole interview was edited, and I sound way smarter than I was in the room!
Seacrest: Well, I had to do that. Pull you up a little bit. (Laughter.)
Sweeney: But that’s an amazing talent.
Seacrest: Live TV is more comfortable for me because I started
Daly: It’s the multitasking in your brain.
Seacrest: You produce it, you load the spots, you run the board.
Daly: If you walk into my radio show Monday morning, you are going to see me in my shorts editing with my right hand. I’m like literally the homeless guy on the street playing 15 different instruments at once.
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THR: What is the most frustrating aspect of your jobs?
Piligian: Working. F—ing going to work.
Beers: Dealing with networks, man. There are a lot of very talented people at networks, but there’s constant turnover. You have a relationship with a network exec, and all of a sudden they go on to another place, or move up. Also, I can’t believe people are going out to pitch Netflix and Facebook and YouTube now. They’ve got network execs, too? And I’m hearing the same shit from Netflix that I am from Discovery or NBC?
Seacrest: There goes that sale. (Laughter.)
Sweeney: There are a lot of people I answer to. And my taste and what I think is going to allow the conversation to unfold is maybe different from what the network thinks versus what my producers think. You have to please everybody.
THR: That’s come up with Idol, when Fox chief Kevin Reilly said at the upfronts that there were going to be some changes next season. And then Nigel Lythgoe said, “Well, I produce the show, what are they?” When you hear those different voices, what’s your reaction?
Seacrest: I’m conditioned, after being on that show for so long, that there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. It’s been an incredible machine for so many years, so I’m slightly immune to all of the different voices and grateful for all of the different opinions, to be honest. I was actually sitting on the set this year, and we were trying to figure out audition dates so that they could be cross-referenced with all of the other schedules. Then I saw them in the teleprompter broadcasting to America, live. I thought, “God, I’m the last to know sometimes.” (Laughter.)
THR: Can Idol go on forever?
Seacrest: There’s always an appetite for big performing shows. There are always people trying to pursue a dream. Sure, I think it could go on for a long time.
Piligian: American Idol is the greatest reality television show.
Piligian: Yes. I think it’s one of the most spectacular shows on TV. I said it to Randy Jackson. It’s just so pure, so innocent. America votes for the best singer.
Seacrest: Well, thank you for saying that.
Daly: Surprising coming from the guy who drops the F-bomb every five seconds. (Laughter.)
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THR: Is there a saturation point for singing competitions on TV?
Piligian: Honestly, I thought there was. But then The Voice emerges, and I’m going: “F—. There’s more room for singsong shows on TV!” I’m going to get into that business somehow. We do these docusoaps, and it’s so exhausting. I just want to do one big song show and let them sing. (Laughter.)
Beers: We have to live with our talent for years and years. The first season, they are amazed they’re on television. The second season, they go, “Why is the network making so much money and I’m not?” The third season is, “I want more money.” The fourth season is, “I’m going to try and get even more money.” But then if you get by that hump, all of a sudden they realize, “Hey, I’m driving the pace car in the Indianapolis 500. I don’t give a shit about more money.” All of a sudden that fame takes hold, and then they realize that “without this show, I’ve got nothing.”
Seacrest: Your characters are intense; ours are pretty grateful.
Beers: Yes, because they are only in one season. (Laughter.)
THR: What’s the strangest interaction you have ever had with a contestant?
Deeley: There are definitely times where I am quite touchyfeely with everybody. There are moments where I literally leave work, and I go, “If anything happened to me right now and they found my murdered dead body, and they did forensics on me, I probably have the DNA of about 57 people all over me, and they wouldn’t have a clue where to start.” I smell of sweat and cologne and vague desperation.
Beers: What are your weekends like? (Laughter.)
THR: Do you ever worry about getting too close to some of the people?
Deeley: No. I’ve never had anybody react weirdly with me, and I never had anybody in the street say anything derogatory to me. In fact, I’m kind of the opposite. I invite all of the kids from every season around to my house for July 4th to barbecue.
Seacrest: “Have you ever been hit on by a contestant?” I think is what they are asking.
Deeley: No, I haven’t.
Piligian: I find that hard to believe.
Sweeney: Maybe you didn’t know.
Deeley: Well, most of them are gay, so my averages are very low. (Laughter.) We try to leave the door open because what you’re doing is taking ordinary people and putting them in this hothouse. If they want to talk about anything to do with their career ... keep the door always open.
Daly: I tried to play golf with a contestant from season one from The Voice, and [the network] was like, “No, favoritism.”
Seacrest: Yeah, favoritism.
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Piligian: You have to really like the person to play golf with them. A five-hour thing! I can’t do it.
Seacrest: Are you in a relationship?
Piligian: I’ve been married 25 years.
Seacrest: Well, you can do it.
Piligian: But that’s different.
Sweeney: Yeah. She doesn’t play golf. One issue that’s come up in the reality business is copycat shows.
THR: One issue that’s come up in the reality business is copycat shows. Carson, what did you think when you saw ads for The Choice [Fox’s dating show that closely resembles The Voice]?
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Daly: So funny. I mean, Idol blazed a path for so many of us, let’s be honest. For the first pitch for The Voice, I heard the words “singing competition” and said, “No thanks.” I have a great career in radio, I love my late-night show, and it’s not a space I feel the need to be in right now because it’s oversaturated. But Mark Burnett produces cinematic television, and I thought it was different enough where it could work.
Seacrest: [To Deeley] You’re hosting The Choice, right?
Seacrest: And now you are spinning in the chair.
Deeley: Yes, literally! It’s The Dating Game but with the chairs. Daly Ryan said it best, though. If you are producing television that strikes a chord with America, everybody has a pursuit of a dream, and if you can tap into that — whether it’s through weight loss, through singing competition shows — and you can do that well, you’re going to be successful. If you do it cheap and you do it cheesy, it’s just not going to work. Americans need some form of escape, even if it’s through a Kardashian show.
Sweeney: That sense of, “I can do that, too. I can be a singer.”
Daly: Do you get pitches that are just bad?
Beers: I don’t take the pitches. They come out of my head.
Daly: Or have you had an idea that you thought, “No one is really going to watch that.”
Daly: Yet they watch Pawn Stars and Storage Wars. (Laughter.)
Beers: Yes. Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men. It’s fabulous. Think about going out and trying to pitch Deadliest Catch. “It’s guys fishing.” “OK, what am I going to see?” “Well, they are going to boat, and then they are going to drop a pot …”
Seacrest: How did you come up with that concept?
Beers: I went to see a crab fishing boat for a special I was doing in 1999 called Extreme Alaska. Within 48 hours, I was 200 miles away at sea and ran into the worst storm in 40 years. The wind was blowing at 70 knots, waves at 40 feet, two boats sunk, seven guys drowned, never found the bodies. And I just kept taping, me and a cameraman. I expanded it to an hour, and it was the highest-rated show in the history of Discovery.
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Sweeney: That’s an amazing commentary on people in the industry. Your life is at stake, and that camera guy didn’t put that camera down.
Beers: I was too scared to do anything else. But here’s the best part. We’re getting blown all over the place. I haven’t slept in about 72 hours. And I’m keeping meticulous notes because in my mind, my twisted mind, I’m going, “OK, when this boat sinks at the last minute, I’m going to take this Pelican case, I’m going to throw it overboard, and I know the current travels south, so two years later that case is going to wash up on a shore in Santa Monica, and some kid is going to walk up to his father, “Hey dad, look what I found,” who happens to be an Emmy Award-winning editor. He’s going to open this case and go, “I’ll make this show.” (Laughter.)
THR: Ryan, how has the Kardashian family changed since they started their shows?
Seacrest: Salary. (Laughter.) Besides money? Turnover with boyfriends and husbands. But the premise is still really simple. It’s a family with a lot of love, a lot of craziness, a lot of chaos. There are aspirational components, too. But at the core, it’s a group of sisters and a mom, and Bruce, who is just trying to figure out what’s happening around him with this storm of women. That struck a chord early on. And they made a pact with themselves to be really honest. We don’t stop at all when we shoot stuff for them. They just let it go, and we shoot with a skeleton crew a lot of times with the intimate moments, with some of the relationship breakups, et cetera. But they’ve constantly got something happening in that family that makes for the next episode, the next season, the next spinoff. It’s endless.
Deeley: Do they have much control over what goes out?
Seacrest: Yes. They do see it. Kris [Jenner] is the executive producer.
Piligian: We would never allow somebody to see anything before it hits air.
Deeley: It’s difficult.
Seacrest: I understand why. I remember when we first started shooting Kardashian episodes, there were words that girls use with girls that I was uncomfortable with airing.
Deeley: I know.
Seacrest: It makes me uncomfortable. I’ll pass this to Craig. It rhymes with “beef.”
Sweeney: I know what it is.
Seacrest: So this word was being used back and forth, and I thought to myself, “You can’t leave that in.” And they said, “Yes. We talk like that.” We ended up taking it out, but since then they actually weigh in. It’s dangerous.
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THR: What’s something that Kris has vetoed?
Seacrest: Not much, actually. They like to see their shots. They like to see how the shoes look.
Piligian: But that’s part of the show. The shoes, and the handbags!
Deeley: Oh, I love it.
Beers: I like Scott. Is he still around?
Seacrest: Yeah. He’s become a very popular character.
Beers: I’d never seen such a dirtbag the first couple of seasons.
Seacrest: He’s made a complete turn. I’ve seen him out, and people walk right past me and go take a picture with him. They are very excited to see him.
THR: What’s the strangest fan interaction you’ve had?
Seacrest: I don’t get that many strange fan interaction cases.
Daly: Well, the Dictator thing was pretty strange on television.
Seacrest: Yeah. I don’t know that [Sacha Baron Cohen] was a fan, but that was a live moment.
Daly: Did you know about that?
Seacrest: I had no idea.
Daly: There was a moment I rewound it, and I said, “Seacrest is pissed.” You looked mad for a moment, and then it looked like you gathered yourself.
Seacrest: I knew I was on television, and I knew that he was a character. I didn’t know what he was doing. I saw the urn come up, and then it was just such a strange move. And the first moment I thought, “OK, what is this?” And then I had my second jacket that I could put on. So I became calm in the moment. But … I think the greatest compliment is when you run into people in any town, any city, and they come right up and ask you a question without saying, “Hey, you’re Ryan!”
Deeley: I’ve actually had people hug me, like, “It’s so great to see you” and then go, “I don’t really know you.”
Daly: On the first season of The Voice, Christina Aguilera and I took a photo on set and tweeted it. Within like five minutes, I was inundated with responses. One girl said, “I’ve waited 10 years for this photo.” And it dawned on me that that generation grew up with me.
Seacrest: I watched you every day on MTV. How old were you when you started that?
Daly: 24, 25.
Seacrest: Right, so I was finishing college and watching it in the afternoon. You were so casual, so comfortable, and it was live.
Daly: You should pay me some money for that. For all I’ve done for you. (Laughter.) I felt the same way about blazing the Idol trail.
Beers: Fame is interesting. I always sit down with all of the talent at the very beginning when I sign them, and I say, “This fame thing is a mathematical equation, where more people know who you are than you know who they are. That’s all it is.” Our guys, unfortunately, when they get famous, it just changes everything. All of a sudden they start producing themselves. But I just try to get them to hold onto that. Just that idea. It’s just math, man. That’s all it is.
Sweeney: I played a villain on Days of Our Lives for 20 years, so I’ve had every possible fan reaction you can image. People want to meet Sami and smack her. (Laughter.)
THR: One thing about Thom and Craig’s so-called blue-collar shows is ratings are going up and up. How do you explain that? Who is your audience?
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Sweeney: My husband. (Laughs.)
Beers: Women are watching [broadcast] networks and men are looking for something to do. Our audience is 77 percent male. On network, you guys are getting 60/40, aren’t you?
Seacrest: We have women on E!, it just depends on what network you are on.
Sweeney: It’s amazing because my husband doesn’t really watch a lot of TV, and yet he DVRs all of your shows.
Daly: I watch your shows because I feel like I’m not watching TV. It’s my male version of my own escapism. I want to know, “How does a real man live?” I have makeup on! (Laughter.) It’s a celebration of manhood in 22 minutes.
Beers: The coolest compliment I ever got was when we did Monster Garage. There was a woman who worked for our show; an African-American woman, a welder. And I remember one day she says, “Thanks for making my job cool to my kids.”
Seacrest: Fathers say to me: “Thank you for having a show I can talk to my daughter about. I now sit in front of the TV with my daughter. I couldn’t break through to her.”
Daly: I have a 3-year-old now, and I love the idea that I’m at the center of something that my entire family can sit down and watch. Season one of The Voice … my parents were there, and my son, and I looked around the room and thought, “Man, this is so cool to be watching this with my entire family. … My dad’s 80, and everybody is engaged in it.
Sweeney: I love that 8-year-olds come up to me and say they have a favorite contestant.
Piligian: You know how families get together over television shows like Idol? Well, it was opposite for me because I did Ultimate Fighter. And my daughter was in high school, and all the boys knew that I produced Ultimate Fighter.
Deeley: They must have been terrified of you.
Piligian: Really f—ing terrified.
Daly: And she never dated any of them. (Laughter.)
THR: What are your guilty pleasures?
Deeley: America’s Next Top Model. I love it. I recently met Tyra Banks for the first time and went into an impression of Tyra for Tyra. Then just kind of backed off.
Seacrest: It’s endearing.
Deeley: But I got to be a judge on the show, so it was OK.
Piligian: Seinfeld is still the greatest show. That’s what I go to bed to.
Sweeney: I watch Amazing Race.
Piligian: Can you follow it? I get exhausted.
Sweeney: I would do that show in a heartbeat.
Piligian: And it’s won like 54 Emmys.
Daly: But who’s counting? (Laughter.)
Seacrest: I watch cooking shows. I love the Food Network. I absolutely love Giada De Laurentiis.
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Piligian: She’s hot.
Seacrest: The kitchens and the food … I love watching.
Daly: Food has really become the new rock star.
Piligian: You guys like to go out and eat? Go out …
Deeley: … have a great bottle of wine.
Piligian: ’82 Bordeaux. Greatest f—ing wine on the planet.
Seacrest: We’re coming over for your ’82s! (Laughter.)
Daly: Wow, this is how rich people talk.