As yet another three months of Big Brother concludes in the US, officially ending reality television’s summer season, one question lingers in many viewers’ minds: how has host Julie Chen kept her job for seven years?
This all-star season was yet another example of how ‘spectacularly incompetent’ she is as a host, to quote USA TODAY from years ago.
For example, as Chen oversees competitions, she’s sometimes not aware of what’s happening on our screens, such as how contestants are answering the questions she’s asking. Similarly, her interviews with the houseguests who remain inside the compound are most notable for how detached she is. They’re extremely awkward and full of long, empty pauses.
As she hosts, presiding over the live shows once a week, her behavior is so robotic fans have nicknamed her ‘the Chenbot.’ At the end of last season, TV blog TVgasm.com compiled clips from multiple episodes that showed Chen saying ‘but first,’ uncrossing her legs, and standing up. Her motions, blank facial expressions, and tone were identical from week to week, and proved how predictable she had become.
Jokes about her marriage to CBS president Les Moonves aside, Chen remains because her incompetence has become a part of the show’s appeal. CBS may not realize it, but the awkward pauses, stiff movements, and complete detachment from the show she hosts have become a source of amusement for fans of the series.
At least Chen has grown over the years, occasionally showing personality, starting when she hit season three contestant Marcellas Reynolds on the head with her cards after he’d been evicted from the house due to his own stupidity. For the first time, it seemed as though she’d actually paid attention to what happened inside the house.
Nearly all beloved reality show hosts have grown into their roles. In season one of Survivor, Jeff Probst did little more than parrot cheesy lines like ‘The tribe has spoken.’ Eventually, however, he became the game’s number one student, and brought his knowledge to every Tribal Council, challenging contestants and acting as a stand-in for viewers.
American Idol smartly dumped Brian Dunkleman after season one, allowing Ryan Seacrest to leave behind the cheesy banter and instead showcase his strong ability to smoothly move the show forward.
To be effective, hosts have to be involved, as Seacrest clearly is. They have to intimately understand their show and be doing more than just showing up to read scripted lines off a teleprompter. When the audience understands the show and its cast better than the person who’s supposedly leading it, the message is clear: if the person who’s in charge of the show doesn’t even care about it, why should I?
There are other ways to tell stories without hiring a person to do a job a cardboard cutout could do. Hell’s Kitchen uses an unseen narrator to fill us in, while The Real World uses the cast member interviews to structure the narrative and explain what’s happening when necessary.
Far too many reality shows have hosts for no reason whatsoever, and often end up underusing them as a result. Kathy Griffin hosted the reality dating show Average Joe, but was basically never on-screen because her role wasn’t necessary. As an added insult, her name was misspelled in the opening credits; it seemed as though no one involved with the production even knew who she was.
Anderson Cooper remains one of the best reality show hosts ever because he managed to strike exactly the right balance of personality and professionalism, realizing that he had a job to do but not taking it too seriously. As host of the first two seasons of The Mole, when he wasn’t presiding over ‘execution’ ceremonies, he often ate meals with the players, talking and openly joking with them. Basically, Cooper just behaved decidedly human. He was a competent guy who didn’t consider himself above the ridiculousness over which he presided. That’s the same quality he brings to the screen as a newscaster, and that’s what earned him praise last year as he covered Hurricane Katrina.
Hosts like Cooper, Seacrest, and Probst are hard to find. In truth, most non-fiction programs don’t really need hosts, and non-competitive reality series can especially do without them.
Hosts shouldn’t be used as a substitute to compensate for weaknesses in other areas. Ultimately, skillfully edited footage can tell a story far more powerfully than someone reading lines off a cue card.