As a child, did you watch morning talk shows dreaming that someday you would be the one to sit across from movie stars asking them questions about their latest projects? Did you covet the thought of standing microphone-in-hand, introducing the next contestant on a game or competition show? Maybe you have a longstanding goal to host an entertainment or political talk show welcomed into the homes of millions every evening after work.
Becoming a television host or presenter is an ambition held by many. But unlike acting, singing, and dancing, there is much less tangible guidance in actually achieving the feat—until now. In this guide, we break down audition prep, your hosting reel, how exactly you’re supposed to read a teleprompter, and everything else you need to know to become a television host or presenter.
- What skills do I need to become a TV host or presenter?
- What do I need to know about auditioning?
- How do I work with a teleprompter?
- What should I include in my hosting reel?
- What are the different types of hosts?
- How are hosting and acting similar?
- How does hosting differ from acting?
- How did famous hosts get their starts?
- How can I get started?
The skills you “need” for hosting are, in some ways, more elusive than those you need for on-camera or onstage acting. As such, there’s also a less universally accepted consensus of what makes a great host. Yes, you, of course, need to have superb diction and projection, but that “it” factor is much harder to define. We spoke with several Backstage Experts who weighed in on the subject.
Suzanne Sena, actor/performer, former national Fox News Channel anchor, correspondent on the E! network and for “Extra,” and Backstage Expert:
“People ask me all the time what skills are needed to become a good host. A better question would be not only what skills are needed but what traits. Skills are something that can be taught; traits are qualities a person naturally possesses.
“Let's start with the necessary traits. To be a good host, you need to be very comfortable in your own skin. It's vital that you feel confident and comfortable, so that you can then make your audience or on-camera guests feel comfortable as well. They will feed off your energy—or die by it.
“Another quality a person must have to be a good host is a natural curiosity. To conduct a good interview, you need to have a genuine interest in talking to people, learning about them, and furthering along the conversation. Interview skills can be taught; curiosity cannot.
“As for skills, there is a strong need for the ability to improvise, to think on your feet. The best hosts can get off of scripts and just be in the moment, toss in their own words, and have a good response to unexpected situations.”
Joseph Pearlman, acting coach and Backstage Expert:
“I teach my hosting clients to talk to the eyes of an audience, not to their ears or intellect—to illustrate their dialogue by painting a picture using the whole body. Essentially, you're saying, ‘Let me show you. See what I mean? Now look. Do you get the picture?’ We're all physical creatures when we're not acting. It's a bad habit of many actors to drop their natural physicality and start acting from the neck up when performing. You must be as physical in front of the camera as you are in your life.
“One of the most important elements of hosting preparation is to target and identify your audience. Once you know who you're talking to, you must pinpoint your emotional relationship—how you specifically feel about them. Not to ‘act’ these choices but to plant seeds of those relationships inside you. You can never ‘act’ your preparation. Any worthwhile preparation should only strengthen and elevate your performance, not take the place of or protect you from it.
“My favorite definition of ‘host’: an animal or plant that nourishes and supports a parasite.”
Patricia Stark, communication expert, host/anchor of more than 25 TV programs, and Backstage Expert:
“The hosting industry has its own version of the triple threat where traditional and cutting-edge hosting skills come together: teleprompter skills, ear-prompter skills, and thinking on your feet off-script with strong improv skills. I've used all three in the same show and on auditions and have always booked a good number of jobs because I was proficient at all three and could use them when needed.
“Have a genuine interest in people. Get good at being able to strike up a conversation with anyone anywhere. Be authentic, conversational, real. Don't play the part of a host. Have a point of view. Bring something to the party. Own it.
“It's not about you; it's about the viewer. Nobody cares how funny, smart, or charming you are if they get the vibe that it's the "all about you" show. Viewers need to feel that you are there for them to entertain them, inspire them, help them learn something. No matter what channel or show you're on, your viewer is really tuned into WIIFM—’What's in it for me?’ If it's all about you, click, they just changed the channel.”
Marki Costello, owner/president/manager of Creative Management Entertainment Group (the only management group in Hollywood to specialize in hosting) and Backstage Expert:
“Hosting is different than acting. In acting, you are playing a role and becoming a character. Commercially, it's different as well. In commercials, you are selling a product. In hosting, you are selling yourself.
“A great host is one who can connect to the audience. Great hosts don't make it about them but about their audience having a great experience. Great hosts put the audience before their ego. Great hosts are comfortable in their own skin and maintain a strong sense of self.
“There are so many different facets to hosting. It's truly the great balancing act. It's an act that can be 100-percent learned. The great thing about hosting is you don't have to have a lick of talent to do it. But with that strong connection to your audience, you can learn to balance all of the elements of hosting—from the teleprompter, to your co-host, to the copy.
“Good hosts know how to balance all the elements, connect to the audience, and never lose sight of themselves. All of that takes practice. It's a skill that can be 100-percent learned. I have seen people who I thought had a better chance to be struck by lightning than ever make it in front of the camera, but they found their voice, their niche. They learned to balance all the elements and are now making a living as hosts.”
One major difference between acting and hosting is the audition process. Unlike the former, there is a much less unified way to get into the room, let alone actually book the gig. Therefore, there are also less concrete measures one can take to prepare. Backstage spoke with Patrick Lambert, Talent Development Executive for 44 Blue Productions and former Daytime Talent Executive/Booker for ABC and Fox, about his firsthand experiences seeking hosting talent.
“It’s subjective to what you’re auditioning for,” says Lambert. “If someone is transitioning into it, the majority of what they’ll have to go through is a ‘chemistry test.’ Normally, a chem test is a process of switching people into different seats and asking them to talk about general stuff together. If it’s a heavier show, you want to test people’s ability with the ‘hot seat’ and questions that would take a level of skill to answer. But the majority of a chem test is exactly what it says: it’s chemistry. You can pretty quickly tell how people dance together. It’s how they ‘play tennis.’ ”
Lambert advises that all hosting hopefuls should do their homework prior to auditioning which, in this case, really just means communicating with other human beings in the real world. “Whenever any of the newscasters or hosts I know are nervous to do their show, I say, ‘Hey, remember why you got cast in this,’ ” he says. “Go talk to the doorman and the person at Starbucks and ‘warm up’ with them because you’re a charmer and you’re good at what you do, and that’s why you got this job. They put you on camera and you charm people. If you’re comfortable in your skin and have the ability to work any room, that’s the best audition preparation.
“Improv is a really good tool—even if they’re not funny—if they want to become a host. If you’re doing a live show, you’re going to be improvising the whole time and you have you to be comfortable with how your mind thinks.”
The one universally agreed-upon imperative skill that any host worth his or her salt should have in his or her toolbox is teleprompter reading. If you’ve never attempted to do it before, you may think, ‘What’s so difficult about it?’ Well, as anyone who has given it a whirl will tell you, it’s more challenging than you might believe.
“It's not rocket science, but there are some things that you need to know,” says Brad Holbrook, founder of ActorIntro.com, a Manhattan studio that creates video marketing tools for actors. “All of them fall under the heading, ‘Talk to the camera as if you're talking to a person.’ Anything you do or don't do when talking to a real person about something that you find interesting should be reflected in how you talk to the camera. Tone, inflection, fluidity, sincerity, the list can go on and on.
“This is true for all ‘direct-address’ jobs, but it requires a little more effort when a prompter is added to the mix. Some people really do, as the cliché has it, look like a deer in the headlights when they try to read a prompter.”
Holbrook recommends that the best course of action for anyone hoping to up their prompter game is to simply observe others doing it. “Watch those who do it best, and try to notice how they go about it,” he says. “And also, of course, study those who aren't so good at it to identify why they aren't. Just as with great acting (you can never catch them ‘acting’) great direct address prompter delivery never hints that there’s anything between the speaker and the audience except a natural, sincere connection.”
Sena backs up Holbrook, adding that teleprompter skills are one concrete way to make you a more competitive host candidate. “Technical skills, such as with a teleprompter and IFB (interruptible feedback), give hosts a huge advantage in the competitive hosting marketplace,” she says. “Those who have good command of the prompter book more, work more, and get paid more. Those who are familiar and comfortable with an IFB can also become skilled working live.
“Anything you can do to set yourself apart, make yourself stand out, and make yourself more valuable will give you an edge. Put as many tools in your toolbox as possible, and you will be well on your way to building a solid career.”
For hosting, you will need many of the same materials as acting (a headshot and résumé, of course). Your reel, however, will be very different from your standard acting reel—that is, if you even have one. Holbrook weighs in below on how to create the most effective reel specifically for hosting:
“To make a great hosting reel, you don't need many of the things that make showing your acting talent so difficult to do–like other actors, a theater, [or] a film crew, not to mention a good script that features you doing the kind of character you do best,” he says.
“To make a great hosting reel, you only need yourself and some basic professional video equipment. I tell my hosting class students, ‘If you don't have a hosting demo reel, it can only be because you really don't want one.’ It's really that easy.”
Holbrook also emphasizes the utmost importance of quality when it comes to both image and sound. “Find someone with video equipment. I’m not talking about a smartphone, but it doesn't have to be elaborate or expensive, either,” he says. “The major requirement is that it captures audio from a microphone that the talent (that's you) has pinned to their body or that they can hold in front of their mouth, like a reporter. Bad audio, i.e., audio recorded from the camera's self-contained mic, is the equivalent of shooting blurry video, maybe worse. Nothing says ‘just kidding’ like a demo reel with crappy audio.”
Finally, you need to choose your location, which, per Holbrook, can be as simple as you want it to be. “Now, all you need to do is find locations that suit the scripts you've cobbled together, or a green background, which can be as simple as a bed sheet hung on a wall or a commercially available product made for photography (several inexpensive ones can be found easily),” he explains. “Green screen, which has been used in movies and TV for many years, is your best option because it gives you the ability to edit in any picture or video footage you have, as if you were really there. Apple's user-friendly iMovie app does this remarkably well, and there are a lot of other options.”
How to Find a Headshot Photographer
- Game show: This requires a combination of both teleprompter reading and on-your-feet thinking as the game plays out. Examples include “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune,” and “The Price is Right.”
- Talk show: There’s pretty minimal teleprompter reading for most talk shows with the exception of introductions of segments and guests. Talk shows do, of course, require tons of conversation that has to feel natural despite the onlooking audience. Some well-known talk shows are“Live with Kelly and Ryan,” “The View,” “The Talk,” and “The Today Show.”
- Variety show: What you’ll need to host a variety show is right there in the title: variety. Depending on what the show actually is, you may need a plethora of different skills to ensure your audience remains entertained. To gauge the vast scope of variety shows, some current/recent selections are “Billy on the Street,” “Saturday Night Live,” and “Maya & Marty.”
- Reality/competition: Similar to game shows, reality/competition-show hosting will very likely require teleprompter reading in addition to as-it-comes communication with contestants/competitors. Examples are “The Bachelor,” “The Voice,” “American Idol,” “Survivor,” “Top Chef,” and “So You Think You Can Dance?”
- Travel/food show: The least uniformly formatted of the shows on this list, in order to successfully host a travel or food show, the utmost important quality you need to possess is passion for the subject matter. How utterly boring would it be to watch a cooking show hosted by someone disinterested in cooking? Great examples to look to are “Man v. Food,” “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and “The Chew.”
- Awards show: Hosting an awards show requires some added tact since, for the most part, those in the audience are on the edge of their seat wondering if they’ll walk away from the evening as a winner or loser. So, in addition to teleprompter reading and stage presence, you’d be wise to dust off your comedic chops as well. It’s not necessary to be funny, but boy does it help. Awards shows include the Video Music Awards, Clio Awards, and the Teen Choice Awards.
- News: News hosting is probably the single most teleprompter-heavy hosting gig around and, if you want to have a chance in hell of getting a gig, you’d better make sure you’re an expert prompter-reader. You also have to have total comfort speaking directly to camera, as that’s essentially the entire role. Examples include “E! News,” “The Rachel Maddow Show,” “Access Hollywood,” and “Extra.”
While hosting and acting may seem, in the most fundamental sense, like polar opposites (acting requires you’re someone else while hosting mandates you’re authentically you), there’s a reason why there’s so much overlap between the two and why actors are so often sought for hosting gigs. Backstage Expert Nicole Sellars, who is a veteran TV host and journalist, breaks down the five key components that set actors apart:
1. Charisma. Many actors have that special luminous and charismatic personality when you meet them. They are typically animated, bubbly, and very conversational. It is extremely important for a TV host to have this trait because it’s that “special something” that will really make him or her stand out. Actors need to be themselves and learn how to put their real personality out there on camera to attract the audience. Any viewer can spot a fake. What they want is a host who’s authentic and honest—not all about themselves, but instead, the viewer.
2. Confidence. Typically, actors have incredible confidence. The daily grind of auditions and rejections almost requires you to shake it off and get back out there. Actors know that the second they show insecurity and lack of confidence, they’re eliminated. The same goes for a TV host. Confidence is key. It is imperative for a TV host to know who he or she is and to be comfortable in his or her own skin. This trait is so important because that person gains the viewer’s trust and puts the people he or she is interviewing at ease.
3. Improv skills. Almost every actor has taken at least one improv class. It’s practically a prerequisite for any basic acting curriculum. Actors have a huge advantage because of this training, which is key to making a TV host look comfortable and flawless during a live unpredictable broadcast. A great TV host looks effortless reading a teleprompter, going off the cuff into an interview, sharing a point of view, and recovering from a live-shot mishap.
4. Creativity. I know so many performers who have a creative hobby or expertise. For example, many actors are also musicians, artists, life coaches, yoga instructors… you name it. Having these hobbies or special interests can potentially turn you into an expert host. Establishing a niche is a marketable gateway to talent agents. Do you have a degree in decorating? A real passion for fashion? Use your credibility, education, skills, and experience to establish your niche and generate trust in your audience.
5. Conversational skills. Let’s face it, most actors love to talk. They strike up conversations at an audition, in class, out with their friends. It’s a great quality. It goes hand in hand with that charisma. Being conversational is imperative for any host—being authentic, conversational, and most importantly, a good listener. When a host is interviewing someone, the key is for the host to be a great listener—to be invested in the conversation and to care about what the person is saying. Not thinking about the next question on the list. The genuineness of a real conversation will come across in the host’s on-air presence and the ease of the people the host is interviewing.
Some in the business argue that not only do hosting and acting have many similar attributes, but that hosting experience can actually make you a more informed and skilled actor. As Lindsay McCormick, a sports broadcaster whose career has spanned hosting live events for the Super Bowl to guest correspondence for Showtime, explains, “If you have professional experience as an on-air host, there's no reason you can't translate that to film or scripted television.” Below, she details the five ways actors can utilize what they’ve gained in their hosting experiences for on-camera acting:
1. Act like every take is a live broadcast. The easiest part of going from live TV to movies is that you already have the mentality that you cannot mess up. And if you do, you know how to cover it well. Your co-stars will appreciate this greatly when they aren't on set until 3:00 a.m. in order to get it right from four different camera angles.
2. Keep continuity in mind. Sometimes, you'll have a director who’ll remind you that continuity should exist from one take to the next. Sometimes, you won’t, but you will have an angry post-production crew if you don't always keep this in mind. You don’t have to worry about this with live television since you have to nail it the first time. But when you’re getting shot from different angles in film, making sure everything from your hair to your clothes to your hand gestures are the same is a must.
3. Improv like you attended the Groundlings. If you find yourself filming a TV or talk show scene for a film, it’s likely the director will let you be yourself and improvise since that’s what an actual host would do. So have fun with it, interject some humor, and really make it your own. If the director doesn’t think you’re funny, he or she will let you know. But I find that the final edit usually includes some of that improvisation.
4. Incorporate your live audience of extras. The extras are there for a reason, so use them like you would an actual live audience. When we filmed "The Bounce Back," it was inspiring for me to watch how Shemar Moore interacted with his live audience of extras in the talk-show scene. He really brought the set to life through his organic connections with them, and it added something special to the movie. It also made for an entertained crew.
5. Take inspiration from other hosts. There is always more to be learned. When you nab the host role in a film, familiarize yourself with the context surrounding your scenes. Use that information to figure out what type of host character makes sense, and then do your research. Check out real-life hosts who have the personality traits and characteristics you want to imbue your character with. You can always learn from watching others, especially those who are experts at their craft.
So, yes, there are shared elements of acting and hosting, but there are as many differences between them, too. To break them down, we turn again to Holbrook, who insists that actors interested in hosting must understand what sets them apart.
1. Most hosting jobs expect you to play yourself. They didn’t teach us how to do this in our BFA programs, and it’s different from playing a character. Some actors are actors principally because they want the thrill of “being someone else,” and as such, may find it difficult to just be themselves. This is not uncommon. Dustin Hoffman once told David Letterman that he didn’t like doing talk shows because he didn’t feel that he, as Dustin Hoffman, was very interesting. That attitude can get in the way of convincing a producer that you’re the right host for the new travel series. Of course, Hoffman probably doesn’t need that job.
2. Insincerity is the death knell in both acting and hosting. If you’re an actor who really needs to get lost in a character, you should examine how comfortable you are at being “onstage” as yourself. And, as insincere-seeming as some hosts are, the common thread in successful hosts is that they aren't phony. They may be exaggerated versions of their true selves, but, as in acting, there has to be the presence of truth in the portrayal.
3. Hosts talk to an inanimate object. Actors are trained to live truthfully in moments that are usually affected by other characters. Actors feed each other. The “pinch/ouch” of acting in a scene is different than the dispassionate staring of a camera lens. Hosts must be able to convincingly talk to that piece of glass as if they were talking to a real person and sometimes with the extra challenge of doing it while reading words as they fly by on a teleprompter.
That said, hosting jobs do call on traits that most actors have, such as no fear of being the focus of attention, excellent speaking ability, talent for commanding attention, and knowing how to move a story along. And the more “real you” you can project, the better. Overall, actors are very well suited for hosting jobs due to their already established credentials as performers.
Many of today’s most prominent hosts got their starts from all various walks of the entertainment industry, from acting, to comedy, and even culinary studies. To help or inspire you to forge ahead, check out some of these humble beginnings below:
- James Corden: Corden was actually a theater actor who won a Tony Award in 2012 before he was tapped to fill the later slot of CBS’ evening lineup, debuting “The Late Late Show with James Corden” in 2014. He subsequently hosted the Tony Awards in 2016.
- Alex Trebek: Trebek has been in the hosting game since long before his universally known duties hosting “Jeopardy.” The Canadian-born talent emceed a Canadian music program back in 1963 called “Music Hop” followed by a stint hosting a high-school quiz show called “Reach for the Top” in 1966. He’s hosted “Jeopardy” since it started airing in syndication back in 1984.
- David Letterman: Before his astounding 33-year tenure as a late night talk show host, Letterman used his talents on a radio show (from which he was fired due to his disdain for classical music) as well as in a weatherman post.
- Stephen Colbert: Perhaps no host on this list has imbued the feat with more acting than Colbert. After studying dramatic acting at Northwestern University, he joined ImprovOlympic before becoming a member of the celebrated Second City. Involvement with “Strangers with Candy” as well as “The Daily Show” ultimately led him to “The Colbert Report,” a show which he hosted in character for a full nine years.
- Samantha Bee: Before she got her own show, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” Bee’s first foray into show business was a touring production of “Sailor Moon” in Canada in which she played the titular crime-fighter. She became a correspondent on “The Daily Show” in 2003; “Full Frontal” premiered in 2015.
- Chris Harrison: Prior to his universally known role as the master of rose ceremonies for the entire “Bachelor” franchise, Harrison worked as a sports reporter for a CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, as well as at the horse-racing channel TVG Network.
- Ryan Seacrest: Seacrest rivals the entire industry for most prolific hosting duties. He became a superstar host during his time spent anchoring the tenure of “American Idol,” nearly the entire duration of which he was also hosting “E! News.” “Idol” wrapped in 2016, and Seacrest is now co-host to Kelly Ripa on “Live with Kelly and Ryan.” Long ago, though, back in 1993, Seacrest hosted the first season of ESPN’s “Radical Outdoor Challenge,” as well as three child game shows throughout the ‘90s.
- Kelly Ripa: Now the perkiest person on morning television, Ripa first rose through the ranks playing a troubled party girl on the long-running soap opera “All My Children.” She concluded her 12-year stint on the series in 2002, one year after she officially joined Regis Philbin as his “Live” co-host.
- Anthony Bourdain: Bourdain’s success as a host is an example of passion forging opportunity. Bourdain dropped out of Vassar to attend the Culinary Institute of America, and he wrote his first book, “Kitchen Confidential,” in 2000. The powers that be took notice and the Food Network gave him his own show, “A Cook’s Tour,” in 2002.
Just like the entirety of show business, so much of landing a hosting gig depends on sheer grit, talent, and a lot of luck. That being said, there are a few ways to get things moving. First things first: Hey, have you heard of Backstage’s many casting calls? Well if not, they’re an unmatched resource for booking gigs of all sorts, including hosting and presenting. To get specific, you can type “host” or “presenter” into the keywords field to see all the latest offerings.
In addition to Backstage and actively looking for work, there are a few proactive measures to get your foot in the door (or at least crack the door open). “Look for an intro to hosting class in your area that covers the basics: on-air delivery, teleprompter, interviewing skills, and writing,” advises Sellars. “All TV hosts will have to, at one time or another, write their own scripts. It’s important to be the full package—especially when starting out. Once your training is complete, it’s time to shoot a knockout demo reel to land your first job, or potentially an interview with an agent. There are production companies that offer demo reel services, which provide scripting, shooting, and editing. The rates can be pricey but well worth the investment.”
To more thoroughly break down how you can break into hosting, Sellars details the four tools you need in your toolbox to achieve on-camera hosting success:
1. A marketing plan. Once you’ve established the type of jobs you’re going for, it’s time to get your name and brand out there! A broadcasting coach can advise how to increase your online presence, build a following, look professional, keep a clean profile, and keep followers up to date on current projects.
2. Critiques. Many clients have no idea what level they’re performing at until an on-air expert observes and offers critiques and advice on how to improve. Whether it’s teleprompter reading, writing news or hosting scripts, voice and diction, or on-air presence, there are so many elements to being an on-camera superstar that it’s necessary to have a professional observe and provide feedback.
3. Polished skills. Once clients have been critiqued, it’s time to start working on those skills. Many clients look and sound great on camera but have no idea how to create content or write a pitch, skills necessary for any newsroom and other media platforms.
Nowadays, it’s crucial to be a jack-of-all trades when starting out if you want to be a host or news reporter. One must have incredible on-air presence, be a creative and factual writer, a comfortable ad libber, a videographer and editor!
4. A wealth of information. Broadcasting coaches pride themselves on previous, extensive experience in the fields of TV and broadcast. Over the years, they collect a wealth of information such as legitimate talent agents, reputable TV and news networks, national media companies searching for fresh talent, web designers, video producers to help with demo reels and more! It would take years for newcomers to collect these reputable contacts.
Head over to Backstage’s casting calls to see our hosting opportunities!