Host Story

is is an excerpt. For the full story, look in the Member's Area or in the Nov. 30--Dec. 6 issue of Back Stage West.Unlike most hosting auditions in which the candidates are brought in front of an audience to lead a sample show, Jeff Probst wasn't asked to head a mini tribal council among the buffalo patties on Catalina Island. To land his much-publicized (and sometimes derided) role on Survivor, the CBS ratings bonanza that debuted in March, Probst had a two-hour interview with the show's producer, Matt Burnett. "Matt spent an hour and 30 minutes telling me I didn't want the job," recounted Probst in an interview earlier this year. Burnett went through a laundry list of sacrifices and challenges Probst would face on the desert island in Borneo. No hotels. No special treatment. The host would be sleeping in a tent. But Probst was not deterred. "I spent the last 30 minutes of the interview telling him that there was no person more well suited to the job than me." He was as persuasive as he knew how to be, bringing up anything and everything in his personal background he thought would sway the producer. "I said, "My wife's a psychotherapist. I'm a writer. I'm a student of the human condition. I observe all the time.'"Two and a half months later, Probst received a callback. The selection was whittled down to him and one other person. Again he met with Burnett, who, this time, was flanked by CBS executives such as Les Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Television. After Probst won the gig, Burnett admitted that there were three things that had clinched it in his favor.1. His resume: He was at the time (and still is) the host of VH1's Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy. He had worked as a reporter on E!'s Access Hollywood and had also done live television for FX Networks on SoundFX and BackChat. The extensive hosting background and especially the experience in live TV impressed Burnett. "[Live television] was probably the best training ground in terms of thinking on your feet," said Probst. "It puts you in this way of thinking-which is four steps ahead, always."2. How he conducted himself in the interview: "[Burnett] told me, "I like the way you took the meetings. I just believed that you were a guy's guy, and you didn't have,' as he put it, "any actor bullshit about you. I felt you were really being truthful with me about what you thought you could bring to the show.'"3. His demo reel: On his tape was an interview with Sandra Bullock. ("It's one of those interviews that you just pray for, because it's you with a celebrity having fun.") In it, Probst and Bullock are unbuttoning each other's shirts talking about cleavage. "Matt said, "If you can have an interaction like that with Sandra Bullock, then you can do anything.'" Instead of having three secret tricks up his sleeve, Probst won it by perfecting his approach in the three traditional avenues.ONE WAY OR ANOTHERHigh-concept reality shows such as Survivor and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, which air smack in the middle of primetime, have certainly raised the profile of hosting jobs. And, according to Paul Barrutia, an agent at the Paradise Group, which focuses on representing hosts, the proliferation of reality-based television has really taken off over the last five years. (It is by no means new, however. America's Funniest Home Videos broke onto the scene in 1990, and before that there were daytime game shows, chat shows, and late-night talk.) Today, Barrutia explained, "There's magazine shows, entertainment shows, game shows, talk shows, news reading, sports..." And each of those shows requires a ship's captain or, as some put it, a traffic cop, to make sure everything runs smoothly.The explosion of media outlets in the latter half of the '90s has also given rise to the demand for hosts. "Now there's DirecTV and there's satellite. There's cable, there's the Internet, there's trade shows. There are many more avenues," said Marki Costello, president and co-owner of Creative Management Entertainment Group. Costello not only manages host talent, she also works as a host casting director and teaches a hosting weekend seminar.Although some hosts are also actors or standup comics (note Rosie O'Donnell or even Oprah Winfrey, whom we saw first in The Color Purple), and some go from hosting into acting (note Greg Kinnear), agencies such as the Paradise Group are often not looking for actors. The majority of Barrutia's clients come from a journalism background. "They've been to J-school, but they don't want to do hard news-because it's a grind. You have to move a lot and start in a small city and work your way up," he explained. "A lot of [our clients] have that journalism background, but they want to work in entertainment and stay in Los Angeles."Costello also derides the common perception that being a funnyman can segue into being a host. "People think, Because I'm funny, I can host a show, or Because I have a great personality, I can host a show. Well, hosting is a great balancing act. It's being able to disseminate information, service the project, work off a co-host, listen and follow the co-host, bring out your personality, and read host copy. You could be funny; you could have a great personality, but that doesn't mean you're going to be a great host."Sharon Levy, vp of development for Stone Stanley Entertainment, has overseen much of the production company's popular reality programming. Levy maintains that the right qualities in a host will depend on the project. "In a chat format, where a lot is going to be happening at once, it's beneficial to have someone up there with improv skills, because they can think fast on their feet, and they can redirect topics of discussion to make sure that it's going in an interesting and engaging way. If you're a strip game show, you could be taping four to seven shows a day. You really want someone who has done that before-because that is a skill," she explained.One thing is clear in host casting, there is no singular rule, only exceptions. "Each type of situation calls for a different personality," said Levy, whose company is responsible for The Man Show, Loveline, Shop 'Til You Drop, as well as an upcoming slate of pilots and game shows, the majority of which require a host. She admitted that it can be difficult to predict in advance what personality is required. "There's really no exact science. You can watch a tape and think, God this person is so perfect! But when they actually get in the room, it's something that really doesn't fit their personality. And then someone that you never would have thought of becomes the person that rises to the top."This is an excerpt. For the full story, look in the Member's Area or in the Nov. 30--Dec. 6 issue of Back Stage Wes