This month, Ryan Seacrest's career will sprout faster than his famous hairdo's dark roots with three gigs: He takes over Casey Kasem's long-running American Top 40 on Jan. 10; continues to soothe bruised egos on ''American Idol'''s third season, beginning Jan. 19; and fronts his own syndicated daily entertainment newsmagazine/variety show, ''On-Air With Ryan Seacrest,'' starting Jan. 12. The multimedia attack is part of Seacrest's plan to empire-build his way into becoming this generation's version of Merv Griffin, Kasem, and Dick Clark. (Clark declined to comment for this story, but not before his spokesman said, ''Dick sees Ryan as competition. Why would he talk?'')
''On-Air,'' an hour-long hybrid of MTV's ''TRL,'' ''Entertainment Tonight,'' and ''Late Night With Conan O'Brien,'' is the strategy's centerpiece, and Seacrest (who created and shares ownership of the show through his eponymous production company) has hired some of the genre's top producers and talent scouts. ''[The 'Ricki Lake' show] was a talk show turned on its side,'' says exec producer David Armour. '''TRL' was 'American Bandstand' turned on its side. And this is an entertainment news show turned on its side.'' ''On-Air'' will tape live in a window-lined ''Today'' show-like studio at the Hollywood & Highland complex, a tourist vortex/shopping mall with a killer view of the city's iconic hilltop sign. There, Seacrest will serve as a ringmaster for at least three correspondents and as an emcee for outdoor performances.
It's a concept similar to the one that had been floating around Twentieth Television's production offices (though with no host attached), and when execs Elaine Bauer-Brooks and Robb Dalton heard Seacrest's pitch last March, they pounced. ''He described, almost verbatim, what we'd been talking about all along,'' says Dalton. ''This show will have so many moving parts, and the host will have to juggle a lot of plates. Ryan is the guy to do that.'' But syndication is a notoriously difficult arena for new entrants, and Seacrest is aware of the financial liabilities if ''On-Air'' doesn't make an initial ratings dent. ''They are building an entire control room, studio, and sound system just for us. Fox has invested tens of millions of dollars. We've invested in a 10-year lease with Hollywood & Highland. You want to talk about things I can't do? I can't fail. There is no option.''