How Reality Hosts from Carson Daly to Padma Lakshmi Roll With Format Changes

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As TV’s flagship reality shows grow up and evolve — and, in many cases, face down the production changes imposed by COVID — their hosts do, too. And this year set a surprising benchmark for ingenuity among the talent in the hunt for the reality host Emmy.

To wit: With in-person taping suspended for the time being, RuPaul hosted a reunion and finale for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” entirely remotely, shepherding conversation among the show’s contestants as well as leading a lip-sync competition among the finalists, each performing from their respective living rooms. Jeff Probst of “Survivor” similarly engaged his show’s castaways over remote technology, as did Ryan Seacrest of “American Idol” and Carson Daly of “The Voice.”

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Daly relocated to California full time from New York City; after that, he and the production had to figure out “how do we do it better than anybody else out there.”

Daly says he specifically wanted to avoid “the ‘Brady Bunch’ boxes” familiar from Zoom conversations. He positioned himself in “a high-gloss area,” complete with a neon lighting package provided by the NBC show, in order to replicate a studio feel. “We had piped and draped and converted the pool house and brought in this beautiful set piece,” Daly says. “We lit it, we had great lighting and they brought in the field ops: They were doing it all from afar.”

Daly could hear commands, including from “Voice” showrunner Audrey Morrissey, but was on his own for the live shoot, from changing his mic battery packs to doing his hair and makeup.
“We had a couple moments where we were close to not making air with audio bugs,” he says. “But I think people at home didn’t even know I was in a house.”

“The Voice” is part of a generation of Emmy-favorite reality series that came of age together. Another example, “Top Chef,” has been evolving for other reasons entirely. Rather than aiming to keep up consistency in changing times, “Top Chef” is trying to generate new interest — most recently with an all-stars season set in Los Angeles.

“Changing the city every season really helps, because food is very regional,” says Padma Lakshmi, who co-hosts the Bravo staple with Tom Colicchio. “The place that we choose to film really informs our challenges.”

Last season, that meant an episode dedicated to the legacy of L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold. “He wrote beautifully and was beloved so it was the perfect fit,” Lakshmi says — one that may not have been able to occur on a show rooted in a single city.

A third type of versatility showed itself in the work of Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. Past winners in this category for “Project Runway,” the pair built a craft-forward new show, “Making the Cut” for Amazon Prime Video that focused on what they found lacking on reality TV.

“We wanted an audience that not only falls in love with this competition show about fashion,” Klum says, but also “people who can create, because we all want to do that too.”

Their show is designed to be more humanistic than most reality shows, allowing them to focus on the art of fashion rather than personality conflict.

“We felt unshackled — we felt released,” says Gunn. “We were out of the straitjacket.”

It’s a statement that speaks to the power the right hosts: they can craft a show in their own image.

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