DWTS: A Producer’s Review

ABC’s Dancing With The Stars (DWTS) underwent a major remake this year, and it doesn’t seem to be very well-received so far by loyal followers of the show. The biggest, most visible change was at hosting, where producers substituted Tyra Banks for Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews. However, there have been many other changes, too, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Last night’s massive blunder was more about those other changes than the inability of Tyra Banks to handle the situation, and I think fans are being too hard on her. Granted, it didn’t help that she was made to look like a total fool during the mishap, but trust me — as a former TV producer and news consultant — when I say she was set up to fail.

One disclaimer first: I’m going to make assumptions here, and all I can say in my defense is that they’re at least based on general practices in the TV industry. I could, however, be totally wrong.

There’s an old adage about the industry that when audience erosion begins, very often the talent is blamed, especially when research shows that the existing talent can no longer recruit new viewers. Even if the talent is beloved, there’s a point at which that belovedness becomes the show’s greatest weakness in terms of audience growth. And what self-respecting producer doesn’t want/need audience growth. The industry axiom is that your greatest strength becomes your greatest weakness.

Let me share a paragraph from the show’s Executive Producer Andrew Llinares from a forum wherein he was trying to explain the changes. Remember, he’s speaking from a producer’s perspective, not the audience.

“I think it’s working brilliantly with the one host. I think it’s really refreshed the pace of the show, actually,” said the exec. “I think it’s taken it to a new pace, in terms of moving faster and just feeling different. I think there’s a real danger when a show’s been on for a long time that the audience almost gets bored of the rhythm. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. It just sort of gets a little boring — the rhythm of it. So, I think it’s changed the rhythm of the show in a really exciting way.”

Let’s interpret what he’s saying. The issue for him is one host versus two, so it’s not really about the who of the change; it’s about his ability to control the pace of the show, and producers love control. I’ve sat in many a session with consultants who were pressing a need to boost the pace of the show as a way to freshen its perception among viewers. So, pace is his issue, and there’s no question that a one host program quickens the pace of DWTS.

The chemistry of the show has been dramatically altered in the process. The father figure (Bergeron) has been removed, his duties moved to the control room. Erin’s mother figure has been replaced by Tyra, a role she simply isn’t suited to play. She’s on there as a celebrity persona who does what she’s told. It’s all for the pace, folks.

Bergeron and Andrews ran the show from the stage, because they could. Mr. Llinares simply found this to be untenable, because it messed with timings and the sacred pace of the show. However, and this is the biggie, it was these unscripted moments that produced such lovable chemistry between the hosts and the contestants. It was also where we learned little things about the contestants that production couldn’t possibly provide, because they were spontaneous. And, for some producers, spontaneity is a 5‑syllable word for chaos.

Moreover, a talent-driven program, which DWTS used to be, brings other problems for a producer, because they often make unwanted demands of production, efforts designed to help them or favor them during a live broadcast. This is something I know just a little about, for I was Pat Robertson’s Executive Producer and know well what’s necessary for a man to produce a show in real time from the anchor chair. It can be done, but it takes serious flexibility throughout the constant stress to pull it off.

Mr. Llinares’s “pace” was likely a constant battle in year’s past, because both Bergeron and Andrews had a good feel for time and the timing necessary to do their jobs. In a producer’s world, however, that which destroys pace is sin and must be eliminated. What DWTS has become with these changes is a faster-paced dancing/variety entertainment program with interactive chemistry taking a back seat.

And here’s another observation: it’s also LOUD! DWTS is the loudest, noisiest program on television, which is amazing when you consider there is no audience this year due to the virus. Mr. Llinares has taken advantage of that to improve his beloved “pace” according to age-old wisdom garnered from young people by Robert Pittman in guiding the development of MTV long ago. Pittman’s groundbreaking research revealed what young people want:

Irreverence
Zaniness
Instability
Chaos
A Frenetic Pace
Lots of Disjointed Thoughts
In-depth Info About Music

Llinares can hardly be blamed for (unknowingly?) referencing these guidelines in trying to make a show that better appeals to a younger audience. Personally, I believe that horse left the barn years ago and isn’t ever coming back to broadcasting.

Program ratings have been a mixed bag and can be spun to say just about anything. But one look at the actual rating — 1.1 in the 18–49 age category — reveals the real nature of the problem for the networks. A rating is the percentage of TV households in the measuring universe that are watching the program. A 1.1 rating means that 98.9% of the TV household universe 18–49 year old category were NOT watching. It amazes me today that sales people can actually sell such low numbers and still make a profit.

To summarize, Andrew Llinares rolled the dice with remaking DWTS and now must live with the consequences. Last night’s mishap raises the stakes, because it wasn’t pretty. Some commentators this morning are comparing it with Steve Harvey’s infamous 2015 Miss Universe pageant error when he read the name of the wrong winner.

And so, blame assessment is today’s lead on the story, but I think it’s pretty simple. When you inject artificial “pace” into a live program, it’s easy to stuff too much into the mix, and Llinares can’t blame a looser, personality-driven program this time. After all, “more, more, more” is the cry of those who think story count is more important than the people reading the stories.

Even with perfect production, DWTS is but a shell of what it used to be. It feels like a TV show pretending to be DWTS, and even terrific dancing can’t save it.

DWTS has jumped the shark.