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Inside Nick Cannon’s plan to become the most powerful man in media

Update: This article was written before an incident came to light in which Cannon expressed anti-Semitic views. An editor’s note has been added to address the controversy.

Inside Nick Cannon’s plan to become the most powerful man in media
[Photo: Leon Bennett/WireImage via Getty Images; rawpixel]

Editor’s note: This story was written and scheduled to be published prior to the emergence of a video in which Nick Cannon shared antisemitic views on an episode of “Cannon’s Class,” his YouTube talk show. The video was filmed last year, but came to light over the weekend. We learned of the controversy after this article had been published, as well as Cannon’s history of praising antisemite Louis Farrakhan. On Monday afternoon, Cannon spoke again with Fast Company about his comments, and that conversation is here

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Nick Cannon has guided his career with a modest goal in mind: “to become the most powerful man in media.”

Judging by his current résumé, he seems to be on track.

In addition to hosting and executive producing Fox’s The Masked Singer, MTV’s Wild ‘n Out, and E!’s newest show, Celebrity Call Center, Cannon also launched two nationally syndicated radio shows this year on top of his #1 show on Power 106, Nick Cannon Mornings.

Of course, the above doesn’t include his film and music career that spans two decades—not to mention his businesses outside of media, which include a Los Angeles-based vegan soul food restaurant he launched this year, and his line of headphones that have generated more than $80 million in revenue.

It’s an already dizzying track record, but Cannon is about to add what he hopes will become the crown jewel of his empire to tie it all together: his nationally syndicated daytime talk show Nick Cannon premiering in September.

“It will become the central hub of all things Nick Cannon,” he says. “I’ve never been able to really show people what I could do. And even when I have, it’s been compartmentalized, like, ‘I didn’t know you could act. I didn’t know you can play the drums. I didn’t know you DJ’ed. I didn’t know you did stand-up.’ Every time, it’s a big ‘I didn’t know.’ I feel like this would be the place where I can bring all my audiences, as well as all my talents, together.”

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Gaining a foothold in the barrage of content being churned out today is a feat of its own—but daytime TV in particular has an extensive graveyard of celebrity-driven talk shows. Queen Latifah, Wayne Brady, Anderson Cooper, Harry Connick Jr., Nate Berkus, Bethenny Frankel, Kris Jenner, and Tony Danza are just a few of the big names that couldn’t break through in daytime.

However, Cannon is more than confident that he’ll edge his way in to stand alongside titans of talk like Ellen DeGeneres and Wendy Williams—and that’s not just bravado talking.

For as long as Cannon has been crafting his career in front of the camera, he’s spent just as long gaining shrewd acumen behind the scenes, which oddly enough for someone who’s become one of the most recognizable faces on TV, has always been more of his passion.

“I never wanted to be in front of the camera,” he says. “I was always fascinated by the likes of the people who ran things behind the scenes.”

When it comes to TV, Cannon has certainly made smart business moves attaching himself to successful shows, such as The Masked Singer and America’s Got Talent, where he served as a host for eight seasons. And Wild ‘n Out showed that Cannon is able to deliver as a show creator as well.

But daytime TV is a completely different beast than a primetime improv gameshow.

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Cannon charts his early path toward his aim to become the most powerful man in media and why he thinks his spin on daytime talk may get him even closer to that goal.

The young executive

Growing up, Cannon split his time between living in San Diego with his mom and grandmother, and in Charlotte, North Carolina, where his dad ran a public access program as a televangelist.

[Photo: Michael Becker/FOX]
“I learned all of these tricks of the trade being my dad’s TV crew,” Cannon says. “I learned how to run cameras and about audio equipment, lighting, and sets. And as a reward, I was able to get some studio time to do whatever I wanted to do.”

Cannon got his first gig doing standup on his father’s show at just 11 years old. That led him into the standup circuit in Los Angeles, performing at The Comedy Store and Laugh Factory as a teenager. Toward the end of high school, Cannon landed a spot as a warm-up comedian for Nickelodeon’s studio audiences, as well as becoming the youngest staff writer in TV history at 17, working on the network’s shows including Kenan & Kel and Cousin Skeeter. In 2002, Cannon landed his own show on Nickelodeon, The Nick Cannon Show.

Despite an obvious talent for performing in front of an audience, Cannon still felt a pull toward the executive and producer side of the equation.

At 22, Cannon began developing what would become one of MTV’s most successful shows in recent years: Wild ‘n Out, a hybrid comedy and gameshow rooted in hip-hop culture.

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“I felt like it was an opportunity to give my fellow comedians jobs, as well as a couple of hip-hop cats that I came up with who had freestyle ability,” Cannon says. “MTV didn’t really understand the concept off top. So I invested in myself and my idea, and I rented out a comedy club, promoted it, got my cameras, and we shot it. I cut everything together and sold it to MTV. And here we are 15 seasons later.”

Wild ‘n Out premiered in 2005, and just four years later, Cannon became chairman of Teen Nick, running the development and marketing for Nickelodeon’s teen-targeted division.

“That was a real job. People thought it was a vanity project, but that really showed me how corporate America works, and it allowed me to be able to function in those spaces,” says Cannon, who left the position just last year. “I learned the difference between having a real responsibility and a real job and just collecting a check with my name on it.”

Cannon’s foundation of learning both the performative and business sides of entertainment—at such a young age, no less—has been the fuel behind his ubiquitous presence on TV as both a host and executive producer. But as successful as The Masked Singer has been and for all the buzz behind E! Celebrity Call Center, neither are of Cannon’s invention. They’re both U.S. versions of popular shows from South Korea and the U.K., respectively. Even with Wild ‘n Out, where Cannon is both the creator and host, the show’s appeal largely rests on the rotating ensemble of musicians and comedians.

To wit, will Cannon be able to carry the demanding format of a daytime talk show that’s also not a legacy program?

Becoming the next Oprah

Cannon has always rooted himself in Black culture, but throughout his career he’s proved adept at stretching into wider markets. Other recent daytime hosts of color including Michael Strahan, Wendy Williams, Steve Harvey, and the cast of The Real have also successfully bridged audiences across racial lines—but, in Cannon’s opinion, there hasn’t quite been a show that’s leaned into the younger generation with a focus on cultural issues at hand.

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“Clearly in 2020 there’s a paradigm shift going on in such a major way,” Cannon says. “[The landscape of daytime talk shows] may be crowded, but I believe this voice is absent to control the narrative and understand the white spaces. And when I say that, I mean it on every level—in areas where we are not present and making our voice be heard.”

“And that’s no shot to anyone like a Steve Harvey or anyone else who has tried their hat at daytime,” Cannon continues. “I just believe I’m talking to a younger generation.”

Part of Cannon’s mission includes his very deliberate choice to film his show in Harlem.

[Photo: courtesy of MTV]
“Harlem is important not just to Black culture, but to entertainment,” he says. “From the Harlem Renaissance to the Cotton Club to the Apollo. And as we watch Harlem become gentrified around us, I want to be a part of that conversation in a major way and build Black business and focus on community.”

As far as content, Cannon wants his show to skew inspirational while not avoiding any difficult conversations.

“I think media is selling a lot of fear right now with little solutions and little comfort. And I would love to have a safe space to discuss solutions with everyone, from entertainers and artists to experts, professors, educators, and academics,” Cannon says. “And to be unapologetic and speak for today’s generation—the same thing that I say when I’m on [digital hip-hop show] VladTV are going to be said to middle America.”

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Ultimately, Cannon wants his daytime show to serve his community while also serving his multitude of projects.

“My show will be fun and inspirational, but I’m attempting to build an empire such as what Oprah did as a producer. I even admire what Ellen has done as a producer, where her show has become a hub and incubator for new projects, new show ideas, and ways to launch and promote a new product,” Cannon says. “That’s one of the reasons why I am really excited about the talk show, because it is about figuring out how to galvanize and bring everyone to one location and then shoot them back out to your multiple platforms.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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