Why is Mario Lopez, that washed-up Saved By the Bell star, going to host one of the biggest shows on a major network? Starting in November, the former actor who played hunky muscle-man Slater on the ’90s teen sitcom will be a co-host of The X Factor, Simon Cowell’s underpowered (but still successful) alternative to American Idol. But while the other host, Khloé Kardashian, is a reality-TV celebrity whose name will call attention to the show, Lopez’s star power is hardly at a Kardashian level—instead, he’s part of an exclusive club: the professional host who makes a great living at it.
“The host is the ambassador between the viewer and the contestants,” says Brad Phillips, a former network TV journalist and author of the Mr. Media training blog. And like an ambassador, a pro like Lopez has the power to sink or save a project while seemingly not doing much at all.
When his acting career dried up, Lopez made a conscious effort to build what he described to Variety as “a business and a brand” around himself, and it has paid off with hosting jobs in almost every medium. He currently hosts the tabloid show Extra, he has his own radio show, he’s emceed beauty pageants, and two years ago he was the host of H8R, where celebrities come face-to-face with online fans who hate them—something Simon Cowell can certainly relate to.
Proving himself as a host has made Lopez more in demand than he ever was as an actor—Phillips says this is because there aren’t that many decent hosts on television: “The people who are good at hosting tend to get several shows simultaneously,” he explains, “because there are so few people who can do it.” Darrin Rose, a comedian and actor (Mr. D) who hosts the Comedy Network’s Match Game, adds that unlike acting, “there’s not a lot of workshops for being a TV host. You learn on the air.”
Considering the gig doesn’t require any actual acting, singing or dancing, can hosting really be all that difficult? Rose, who had no hosting experience when he was hired for the Canadian reboot of the classic game show, says the role is harder than it looks because it’s the host’s job to move the show along. “You have to do it in a way that’s affable, without saying ‘Shut up, we have to go to the speed round.’ ” He recalls a moment on Match Game when he told panelist Caroline Rhea to move on “and she told me to go f–k myself. So perhaps I have something to learn about the technique of rushing people along.” Someone like Lopez, or American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest, is a valuable commodity for networks because a seasoned host has already gone through those awkward moments, and has learned how to avoid them.
That doesn’t mean a good host can boost a show’s ratings—people tune in to see the panelists, and Phillips notes that an effective MC is one the audience isn’t even necessarily aware of. “When you find someone with skill, you don’t notice them. Their job is to disappear and make everything else happen well.” Still, with The X Factor, Cowell and the network might benefit from Lopez’s presence: some observers thought the original host, Steve Jones, was part of the reason the show didn’t live up to ratings expectations. “It was abundantly clear to the viewers that he was struggling to make the show run on time,” Phillips says. “Viewers should never be aware of that.” Kardashian might provide celebrity buzz for The X Factor, but it’ll be Lopez’s job to make the show fun and fast-paced.
Of course, being a full-time host has one disadvantage: it may prevent someone like Lopez from ever being taken seriously as an actor. “I’m trying to think of a host who made that leap back into acting,” Phillips says, “and I really can’t think of anyone.” But with all the opportunities available for a celebrity to catch the public’s eye, it might not matter: Lopez has already arranged to turn his upcoming wedding to former dancer Courtney Mazza into a TLC reality-show special. Performers don’t necessarily want to get typecast as hosts, however. “I’m not sure I would pursue a lot of hosting opportunities,” Rose says. “There are other things I’m more interested in.” For someone like Mario Lopez, hosting is TV’s toughest, most elite job—but only, it seems, because Lopez is no longer famous at anything else.