“These days, all I can think about is A Wrinkle in Time,” said Elaine Welteroth, best known as the former editor of deeply woke magazine Teen Vogue. “And you’re giving me Wrinkle in Time velvet.”
She was speaking to Giuliana Rancic, the co-host of E!’s red carpet coverage, during the run-up to the 90th Academy Awards. Rancic’s wardrobe was certainly dreamy, but it was their setting that felt most worthy of the young adult novel-turned-film A Wrinkle in Time: The two women were in E!’s version of a parallel dimension. Midway through the network’s coverage of the red carpet of the first post-“Time’s Up” Oscars, the two women were speaking to one another, and to correspondent Brad Goreski, at a glass-topped table by the pool of the a hotel far from the Oscars’ location. Meanwhile, Ryan Seacrest was delivering interviews from the Oscars’ red carpet.
Seacrest had long been seen as one of the most inoffensive A-listers—a figure whose role, as host of red-carpet coverage and of ABC’s Live!, is to reflect back the light emitted by the star. But he had become the story leading into Oscars. A Variety story the week before the Oscars detailed accusations against Seacrest lodged by a former stylist, who claimed Seacrest had abused and harassed her. Seacrest has denied the allegations, citing a workplace investigation in which he had been cleared and saying, “I don’t want to accuse anyone of not telling the truth but in this case, I have no choice but to again deny the claims against me, remind people that I was recused of any wrongdoing, and put the matter to rest.”
There had been questions before the show about whether or not celebrities would sit with Seacrest. But they were put to rest moments into E!’s broadcast. Of course some celebrities would still speak with him on the carpet, whether that’s because E!’s spotlight is so powerful or because the gauntlet of red-carpet interviews at awards shows is just so ingrained by now. And what we saw of Seacrest’s coverage on E! tended to include stars answering the most basic of questions about the years they just experienced, often concluding with a compliment for Seacrest, as when double Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige told Seacrest “I love you on [Live!]. I love you. You have so much fun together!” The night’s low point was when Seacrest’s Live! cohost Kelly Ripa walked the red carpet, telling Seacrest, “You look amazing! We were watching you upstairs from the hotel—you were doing a great job!” But while it bounced back somewhat, it didn’t get more insightful.
Earlier this year, the Golden Globes red carpet, to which attendees wore all black in support of the Time’s Up movement, was a deeply uncomfortable thing—and a productive one. The dress code and, more significantly, the signal it sent to red carpet reporters that business as usual had been suspended, gave rise to tough conversations that many of those reporters couldn’t handle. Several of those conversations included actresses questioning E! about the reported pay disparities at that network. Yet those odd and provocative moments are exactly the sort of thing that moves society forward in fits and starts, as the rote functions of life are disrupted. By contrast, the E! broadcast of the Oscars felt like a frustrating snap back to normal—correspondents gathered with Rancic were forced to deliver bits and pieces of the extraordinary social context in which these Oscars occurred, while Seacrest blithely tossed and parried back compliments closer to the night’s real action.
E!’s continued booking of Seacrest garnered lots of negative press, as when news broke of their contemplation of a tape delay in order to prevent similar public statements on the red carpet, or of a former network red carpet producer’s allegations she was fired for not catching a barb about reported internal gender issues. It’d be easy to say that all flew over the heads of viewers at home. But what probably didn’t was how much time was lost on E!’s broadcast, where Rancic blandly recounting the fashion while key nominees were arriving on ABC. Seacrest had been able to grab several worthy supporting acting nominees, but the night’s A-listers had evaded him, and the network scheduled an hour of red-carpet critique before the awards rather than interviews.
It says nothing about the allegations against Seacrest to suggest that his presence on the red carpet had been a distraction, one against which even a format as time-tested as the old E! “Who are you wearing?” broadcast could not stand up. This might have been a year to seek some space, even as contractual obligations might forbid it. Even Seacrest’s employer seemed stymied: The volume of time E! viewers spent with Rancic and correspondents sitting around a pool—all while competitor network ABC had many more of the night’s stars—felt like an uncomfortable acknowledgment that nothing productive was going to happen with Seacrest as host. Brief moments of airtime before one of the most-deeply-analyzed TV broadcasts of the year might seem unlikely to bear astounding insights, but after switching from E! to ABC, I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda talking about how to help Puerto Rico and Greta Gerwig talking about her admiration for documentarian Agnès Varda in the space of five minutes.
By contrast, E!’s broadcast had felt alternately like a support session for Seacrest and a deputizing of other network assets to make up for his presence. Leaving the P.R. crisis around him as far to the side as possible, Seacrest fell meaningfully short in what was his one job—asking celebrities interesting questions and eliciting interesting answers—on the night during which he’s most closely scrutinized. Against his will, he was proof in action that silence is no longer a viable option.