“My goal is to bring the fun and the love and the energy and the laughter back to the ballroom.” – Alfonso Ribeiro
Dancing With the Stars: Can It Regain Its Heart?
By Inside Dance Team
In a lot of ways, a TV show can feel like an old friend: there when you need it, comforting, familiar, bringing joy, and putting a smile on your face.
For many years, that described the ABC mega-hit Dancing With the Stars to a tee. Viewers invited the program into their homes – popping the popcorn, bundling up on the sofa, and sitting back for what was always an entertaining ride. Episodes brought a wealth of emotions, from pure exhilaration from the creatively choreographed performances to heartwarming feelings from contestant breakthroughs.
The dancing and choreography itself were always show-stopping elements from day one. And though traditionalist and long-time head judge Len Goodman may not have always agreed with us, it was the edgy choreo from the start from the likes of Mark Ballas, Karina Smirnoff, Derek Hough, Cheryl Burke, and Julianne Hough that fueled water-cooler discussions early on and social media buzz across Instagram and Twitter. The show’s popularity skyrocketed and fans tuned in to see the pros and cheer on their favorites just as much (or more) as the stars!
But in addition to the dancing and choreography, it was the ‘heart’ of the show that really gripped viewers and kept them coming back for more and more. Whether it was a celebrity who found themselves and their voice through the experience, a partnership that blossomed all the way to the Mirror Ball, or the loss of inhibitions that comes through the art of expression through dance, the show delivered emotion and very often, very raw and relatable feelings. For most of the stars, it was a personal victory just to make it one more week. And for the winners, many mentioned that winning the DWTS trophy was one of their greatest achievements (alongside winning Olympic gold medals and playing in Super Bowls).
Think about the pure joy of contestants like Laurie Hernandez dancing Freestyle with partner Val Chmerkovskiy to the song Brand New, or most recently, the emotional journey Amanda Kloots went on with partner Alan Bersten. Or when pro Tony Dovolani won the All Stars season with Melissa Rycroft after coming up short of the trophy for 14 seasons! We celebrated and we cried tears of happiness with all of them. We felt inspired (and maybe tried more than a few dance moves of our own in our living rooms) and loved the family atmosphere, the feeling of being together cheering for our favorites. We called our Moms to see if they’d seen the show and voted.
And if there were ever a show that demonstrated the importance of endearing and familial hosts, DWTS was it. From shepherding the show itself to striking the right tone and balance in interviews to connecting with the viewer as they look into the camera, hosts are tasked with that tricky balance of being the faces and the voices, yet also letting the dancers, stars, and storylines be the shining stars.
For many years, Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews fit that description. No one in the entertainment industry hosts a better live show than Bergeron in our opinion. He ushered us through the wild moments of Marie Osmond fainting in front of the judges, made us laugh at just the right moments, and he comforted us on nights when the unfathomable happened just hours before, like the heartbreaking bombing at the Boston Marathon.
Andrews came in as a former contestant from Season 10 where she was paired up with one of the show’s icons Maks Chmerkovskiy. Her interview skills translated from the football field to the celebrity skybox where she could ask each couple about their “showmance” as easily as she could handle their tears after an emotional dance. Her genuine humor paired up beautifully with Bergeron’s as well.
What we loved the most is that Bergeron and Andrews as co-hosts had a genuine friendship — one that still lasts to this day — and that translated to all of us watching from home.
A New Era, A Revolt from Viewers
As is always the case in the television landscape, the only constant is change. Shows work to evolve with the times, mix things up for the viewers, and spice up elements that may need some updating. And generally, that’s a good thing – we’re all for keeping things fresh and exciting. But sometimes, changes are so radical that a show can lose itself. In the case of Dancing With the Stars, the show seemed to lose its heart with the introduction of a new showrunner in 2018 and a new executive producer and host in Tyra Banks in the year 2020.
Instead of a focus on the dancing and choreography, the heartwarming journeys, and the growth that comes through an experience like DWTS, it was all of a sudden all about the host – from the entrances to the fashion to the promos on social media. And viewers revolted – tuning out and speaking out on social media.
Bank’s approach was marred early on by several missteps including calling out the wrong couple as safe from elimination in Season 29, and seemingly pushing eliminated couple Val Chmerkovskiy and Olivia Jade out of the way to wrap up the show. Ultimately, Banks came off as inauthentic. If the studio was testing by the old Q-score method, we’re guessing the likability index could not have been high based on viewer comments on social media.
Prior to Banks hiring though, (and the heartbreaking firing of Bergeron and Andrews), in the ratings race, the ABC favorite had begun bleeding viewers, sinking to new lows starting with Dancing With the Stars: Athletes (Season 26) produced by Andrew Llinares. The four-week season saw a devastating 22% drop in viewership, per TV Series Finale. That decline continued season after season as viewers complained that fabulous dancers like Juan Pablo Di Pace were eliminated over eventual winner Bobby Bones, who campaigned tirelessly (because why shouldn’t he?) on his SiriusXM radio show.
And even though the show incorporated a judges’ save to hopefully make the competition more balanced, controversial contestants like former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stayed far longer than he should have in the competition. However, one of the major elements that irked longtime viewers the most was producers taking away the pros’ creative control.
Formerly, pros would conceptualize a dance from start to finish with theme, music, lighting, costumes, and choreography. Llinares changed all of that by assigning them a concept with music and they would just design the movement — it often resulted in couples having to perform a jive to cha-cha music.
The entire production did not make sense, and the damage was done. The ratings continued to tank and only tumbled further. From Season 26 to Season 30, Dancing With the Stars lost almost 50% of its viewership under Llinares’ leadership. It was no surprise when it was announced that the original DWTS executive producer (he launched the show in 2005), Conrad Green, was being brought back to work his magic in the big Disney + move.
Extreme Makeover, Part 2
So here we are. With ratings sagging, viewers disheartened and the overall broadcast television landscape continuing to evolve, the show announced it was heading to Disney +, which has also been met with mixed reactions. While the show was no longer viable on ABC as a moneymaker, moving it over to a streaming network makes it less accessible to many households (especially those with an older demographic) because it puts the show behind a paywall and frankly, feels more complicated and ironically less attractive. Given the current landscape where budgets are being cut on TV shows post-pandemic, it makes us wonder if Dancing With the Stars will lose more of its luster if some of the production elements dwindle even more.
Yet there is good news to this move with Green back at the helm. He knows what makes this show tick – spotlighting the journey of teaching someone to dance. With two seasons to do so – both Seasons 31 and 32 were renewed in the move to Disney + – Green will hopefully resurrect the heart of Dancing With the Stars. It will also be the first live competition show on a streaming network with no commercial interruptions which seems inviting. Green will have the opportunity to bring two hours of dance into people’s homes, which hopefully means that elements like group numbers and special musical appearances will return to the ballroom floor. Hopefully.
With this new start, many expected and hoped that perhaps the door would be opened for a new host for this new era that would resonate more authentically. But instead of a complete change, it was announced that season 19 winner Alfonso Ribeiro would be joining Banks as co-host. The Twitterverse and other social platforms immediately responded with an overwhelming show of joy and excitement for the Ribeiro announcement.
Bergeron and Ribeiro exchanged sentiments on Instagram with Bergeron posting: “Now, getting Conrad Green back as DWTS showrunner is only ONE of their smartest decisions. Here’s the other one – Congratulations, buddy!” Bergeron, 67, wrote, sharing photos of himself with Ribeiro.
“I just hope I can make you proud,” Ribeiro, 50, wrote in the comments, to which Bergeron replied, “I have no doubt.”
Andrews also congratulated Ribeiro in the comments of Bergeron’s post, writing, “Whooohooo for sure!! Congrats @therealalfonsoribeiro
At the same time, so many seemed disappointed that Banks was still in the mix.
On Instagram, Inside Dance followers voted 90% in favor of Ribeiro hosting on his own without Banks.
Popular news personality and dance reporter Kristyn Burtt (also a lead contributor for Inside Dance magazine) asked her followers for thoughts on the announcement on her Instagram page (@thekristynburtt) and among the responses were:
“No, no, no. Tyra just does not work on DWTS.”
“Hmmmm. I still miss Tom and Erin.”
“Alfonso is much needed.”
“I hope Alfonso will help balance out any awkwardness from Tyra.”
“I think Tyra will do much better in the Erin/skybox role (if that’s what they’re doing here).”
“The pros seem to be genuinely happy with the news of him joining.”
On the official Dancing With the Stars Instagram page, a video was posted with Banks and Ribeiro (in separate locations) announcing the co-hosting set-up, and comments were mixed, but largely seemed to be excited for Ribeiro joining but disappointed in Banks staying on.
In a time where media outlets seem to be hyper-focused on viewer feedback that’s so easily available through social media and traditional feedback mechanisms like focus groups, it was somewhat (okay, very) surprising that Banks remained. But remember she’s also an executive producer and undoubtedly has input into the hosting decisions. She also is likely locked into a pretty solid contract, possibly leaving Disney without a lot of maneuverability at present.
So What Now?
So back to the original question. Can Dancing With the Stars regain its heart? That remains to be seen.
We applaud the selection of Ribeiro. Among his many incredible qualities and perhaps at the top is that he’s genuine and connects with viewers. That’s evident not only from his time on the show but his other jobs throughout the years, including taking over America’s Funniest Videos from Bergeron in 2015. And really, who doesn’t love ‘The Carlton” dance?
When Banks is interviewing dancers and stars, the energy feels chaotic and doesn’t draw out the heart and essence of the journey of the contestants. Conversely, Ribeiro’s ability to connect on a more genuine level should be an asset in getting beyond the surface to the ‘heart’ of the story. Having been a contestant himself should also serve him well because he’s able to show understanding and empathy in all circumstances. And his overall sincerity and likability come across on camera in an authentic way that truly connects with viewers.
How the pro dancers and contestants pour their hearts and souls is truly on an almost indescribable level 99% of the time. They spend hours creating and rehearsing in the studio to perfect the dances. They have long hours on Sunday and Monday as they run through camera blocking and dress rehearsal, and they stay after the show to do press line to keep the PR machine running. It’s beyond a full-time job during the 10-week season.
People crave authenticity and connection more than ever right now. And that was the heart of Dancing With the Stars for years and years. We can only hope the ‘best friend’ feeling returns.
And with Ribeiro on board, we do have hope.
“Obviously I’ve been a big fan of the show from the very beginning and to now be a co-host on the show and be back in the ballroom with all of my friends — they feel like family,” he gushed. “I mean, trust me, Thanksgiving at my house is pretty much a ‘Dancing With the Stars’ all-star edition,” he told GMA, adding, “My goal is to bring the fun and the love and the energy and the laughter back to the ballroom.”
Photos: ABC/Disney Press
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