Do you remember when TV hosts were just that; TV hosts. From Davina `McCall and Ferne Cotton to Reggie Yates and Phillip Schofield (love him or hate him), these hosts were stars enough to captivate the audience yet normal enough to feel relatable. In an era of international streaming, however, many of these spots are being replaced by celebrity hosts…
Netflix has “Down to Earth With Zac Efron.” TBS had Conan O’Brien’s “Conan Without Borders.” CNN had “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” which was both a celebrity travel show and a celebrity food show — another thriving subgenre, with entries from Selena Gomez, Amy Schumer, Jon Favreau and Paris Hilton. Many are arguing that the celebrity persona is diluting the authenticity of a show’s content; O’Brien, travelling in Armenia, is so shameless in his pursuit of laughs that he almost seems to embarrass his Armenian-American assistant. Stanley Tucci, eating cantucci in Florence, has to remark that “anything that ends in ‘tucci,’ I like.” The celebrity travelogue doubles as proof of just how hard it is for performers to subordinate themselves to their surroundings.
We understand why a celebrity host is the obvious choice, especially in an oversaturated TV market; a familiar host can lure people to watch a new show. But oftentimes, the result is a suffocating and often superficial take on how fascinating or delicious everything is. Eventually you come to suspect that each show would feel functionally identical no matter where you sent the celebrity — that Stanley Tucci could tour America’s bowling alleys, or Zac Efron could sample Midwestern diners, or vice versa, without much changing. This is happening across the TV world: What used to be meaningfully informative programming, delivered by personable but only tangentially notable hosts, is gradually being swallowed up by celebrity.
This rings particularly true with travel shows because the whole beauty with travelling is feeling like an outsider. That is the whole point of being there. That decentered feeling never really goes away, neither on that trip nor on later ones. This is how I feel about Paris. I first went aged 13 and found it so artistic and magical. Then later I went on a trip aged 17 for work experience. I then lived in the city between aged 20 and 21 and even now when I return aged 24, that magic is still there despite my familiarity.
Celebrity travel shows tend to evoke something close to the opposite of that feeling. This is not to say that you can’t learn anything from them. It’s just that the celebrity at the centre will generally steal the spotlight from the locale itself.
The difference between celebrity hosts and a presenter is that, while presenters can become famous for presenting, they are able to serve as proxies and narrators and cultural synthesisers, both standing in for us and offering us their impressions. When we come to trust them, it’s often precisely because they know how to step out of the way and help us engage with the places they’re exploring.
Perhaps a middle man can be met in the form of the travel influencer. Travel influencers have a following in the hundreds of thousands and are still low key and relatable enough to disappear into a big city or vast wilderness. Moving forward, it would be interesting to see streaming services scout within this pool rather than in a pool of middle aged white male actors with twenty year careers in Hollywood.