Primetime hit gives new life to TV’s golden-age variety format
What started as a quiet summer series launch is now television’s biggest hit. And the progression of Dancing with the Stars from short-term time period filler to a mammoth success story only proves the value, and importance, of feel-good family friendly programming.
Debuting on June 1, 2005, Dancing with the Stars was described as a six-week dance competition, as six celebrities—Evander Holyfield, Rachel Hunter, Joey McIntyre, Kelly Monaco, John O’Hurley and The Bachelorette star Trista Rehn—competed for the now notoriously cheesy mirror ball trophy. Judged by Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli, the show hoped to tap into the public’s fascination with the reality/competition format by giving the audience the ability to call in and vote.
One celebrity and his (or her) professional dance partner would be eliminated each week under the watchful eye of Emmy-nominated quip master Tom Bergeron.
At a time when more people were outside enjoying the warmth of the summer than watching television, ABC was hoping the combination of celebrities and dance would spark some interest. But what it never expected, and ultimately accomplished, was to reinvent the variety genre.
Once a staple on television, “variety” traditionally meant a combination of comedy, music and skits, all hosted by the likes of Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Carol Burnett, Dan Rowan & Dick Martin, Sonny and Cher and countless others. By the mid-1970s, however, viewers’ tastes had begun to change and the format seemed like it needed a breather. So the variety show took a hiatus from prime time.
Flash to the present and the rise of so-called non-scripted programming—competition and docudramas, in particular—have all but swallowed up the TV landscape. Many are spiced with backstabbing and induced melodrama. But some, like Dancing with the Stars, prove that what once thrived in the past can exist again.
Tom Bergeron and company are now the new definition of variety, with its future paved with over 20 million viewers each week thanks to the dancing and the music, the comedy and the interactive elements, and arguably the best mix of celebrity participants since the days when aging actors, up-and-coming stars, singers and sports figures, legends and news figures stood in line waiting for a guest star appearance on a show like Carol Burnett’s.
Where else can you find a mix of celebrities in one season ranging from Jennifer Grey, Florence Henderson and Super Bowl champion Kurt Warner to Bristol Palin and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino?
ABC won’t reveal the next set of contestants until later this summer. But the list of wannabe contenders continues to grow every year. As always, expect a surprise…or two.
Marc Berman is the creator/editor of Adweek’s The Programming Insider, an online bible about television; webmaster for PIFeedback.com; and a contributing writer for Adweek Magazine. His work has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Emmy Magazine, Newsday, The New York Post, The Los Angeles Times and CBS Watch.