By Gerrad Hall
May 08, 2019 at 07:29 PM EDT

With just 45 minutes to go until American Idol goes live for two hours, Ryan Seacrest is in his trailer, lounging in a zipped-up hoodie, seemingly unphased by the ticking clock. Having just been groomed and debriefed on the episode where the Top 6 finalists will perform, nerves don’t seem to phase the 44-year-old, who’s served as host of the singing competition since it launched in 2002, logging more than 550 episodes (he’s missed just one — more on that later).

Little does he know, his name is also going to be announced in a couple hours at the Daytime Emmy Awards, which are being handed out not too far away in Pasadena, just outside of Los Angeles, winning Outstanding Entertainment Talk Show Host with his Live partner in crime Kelly Ripa. He was named permanent cohost on May 1, 2017, a year after Michael Strahan moved over to Good Morning America.

“I kept telling everybody I could do it but I wasn’t quite sure I was going to be able to pull it off,” he tells EW of returning to host IdolFox canceled the show in 2015 and ABC officially revived it in May 2017, not long after Seacrest joined Live — while holding down daily talk show duties alongside Ripa, plus fronting his own four-hour iHeartRadio show. “And we’ve got it down to a science. It’s the most I’ve ever worked.”

Eric McCandless/ABC

And working well. Ratings are up for all of his shows; American Idol — which features Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan as judges — regularly wins Sunday night ratings and is the most-watched reality show (even without those juggernaut ratings it used to rack up); and Live‘s audience has been growing while in recent weeks while Dr. Phil and Ellen have seen small losses or held even.

What’s the key to making it all work? Seacrest reveals that answer and talks to EW about why this current crop of American Idol finalists is regarded as some of the best the show has ever seen, having to call in sick this season, how Live has made him a better host, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the 17 seasons of the show, many think this is the best batch of finalists the show has ever had. To what to attribute still being able to find such great talent after all these years?
RYAN SEACREST:
It’s funny because you would think after going out for almost 20 years that maybe you’ve tapped all the talent in different places, but then you forget kids are born every year and after being around for 20 years they can graduate to being old enough [to compete on the show]. I think this year, the judges did an exceptional job bringing in contestants who are all pretty different who had a sophistication prior to being on the show. And with the technology that we’ve got and the accessibility to everything that kids have now, I’ve seen a sophistication grow; when we started with Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini and that group, they weren’t as sophisticated coming in because they didn’t have access to as many things. Now they’re singing in their bedrooms and they’re posting videos, so you see there’s a different level of talent from the start of the series than we used to have years ago.

Looking back a couple years ago to when the decision was made to revive the show, many weren’t sure it was a great idea — there was concern over audiences growing tired of TV singing competitions. Two new seasons in, American Idol is the highest-rated reality show and is doing well week after week. Were you concerned about whether audiences would come back?
Well, remember, I’ve been on the show since we were getting 35 million viewers twice a week, so that was a peak performance for the show and it began to taper down as the years went on, but as a producer and someone who tries to create television, there are very few franchises like this that can get an audience. So when we signed off on the other network, I did have a feeling — a pretty certain feeling — that we would be back somewhere else. And it has found more of an audience this year, in its second round, in these live episodes than it did in the first season ask.

I was going to ask about these live coast-to-coast episodes…
It’s cool.

Do you wish it’s something the show had been doing sooner?
Yeah, I do! I think there’s an immediacy and excitement to it. I actually love the format of the votes don’t even close until the last 30-second commercial is playing on ABC. I think that’s fun and it adds stakes to that two-hour show.

And an adrenaline rush injected into the proceedings.
Yeah! There’s a rush, it’s simplified, it’s efficient, but it’s cool that the voting is open until that last 30-second spot of the last commercial break.

Eric McCandless/ABC

This season, if I recall, is the first time you’ve missed a show because you were sick. On the radio, I’ve heard you power through while having a cold and things like that, so you really must’ve been down for the count to take a sick day.
Yeah. It was rough. It was rough. My schedule is… it caught up to me. My schedule is as intense as its ever been and I have to travel every four or five days, and I can fight through a lot but this had me down and out. [Laughs] I guess when I look back on 17 years and hundreds and hundreds of episodes, it was the only one.

That’s not a bad track record.
Yeah, sick only once every 17 years. [Laughs]

So you’re on the radio every morning for a few hours, you do live TV six days a week between Idol on Sundays and every weekday at Live With Kelly and Ryan — and you’ve now been there two years…
Yeah, entering my third year already.

What was that adjustment like?
Moving to New York was significant because I had lived here in California for almost 20 years, and I will tell you when I sat down and tried to figure out how to do the show, four hours of live radio, and getting back here on Sundays, I kept telling everybody I could do it but I wasn’t quite sure I was going to be able to pull it off. And we’ve got it down to a science. It’s the most I’ve ever worked.

Pawel Kaminski/Disney/ABC Home Entertainment and TV Distribution

And the ratings are up there as well.
Ratings are up at Live. Ratings are up at KIIS, and the last few episodes are here too.

So what’s the magic element?
To not think about it too much. I think for Live, Kelly is an unbelievable talent and she is America’s best friend in a way. So many people have watched her have her kids and raise her kids, and I walked into something that is already a successful franchise and has been for years, but to see in a climate where television is declining for the most part, especially in the daytime talk world, to see it go up makes it fun. Makes the work worth it.

You’ve been interviewing celebrities for years, but how has doing that show changed and made you better?
I think the format of that show, you become much more accessible to a TV audience because you’re talking about your life for the first 20 minutes, and it’s very unscripted and unplanned. On the radio, I talk about things a lot more [that are] more personal, but on Idol, I’m not talking about going out for fondue the night before for dinner and what happened. For me, creatively, it’s been fun because I get a chance to just be a human being on the TV show and the two of us have known each other for almost 20 years so we have an extreme partnership — a great and deep partnership, and a very profound trust for each other, so that makes it also more fun to do.

American Idol airs Sunday, live coast to coast, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC; Live With Kelly and Ryan airs weekdays (check local listings).

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