Changing of the Judges

Changing of the Judges

Television series have a limited lifespan in general, and the same has been true for dance shows. Arthur Murray Dance Party started in 1950 and ended in 1960.  Dance Fever with Danny Terrio, choreographer for John Travolta dancing in Saturday Night Fever ran from 1979 to 1987.  Dance Party USA ran from 1986 to 1992.  The two most prominent ones for this century, Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance both started in 2005.  While these have had an extraordinary run by TV standards, we would be remiss not to ask, what has changed to reduce viewership and/or popularity.  Whereas Britain’s Strictly Come Dancing appears to be staying the course with regular ballroom dances dancers as judges and a master judge, America’s shows appear to be moving toward more contemporary and artistic dancing, alternative partnerships, and new ways hoping to engage a younger demographic.  Time will tell, but these changes along with releasing established judges and hosts may be too much for the established audience.

What are we to think, now that both Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance are without “senior” judges.  Reasons could include that they wanted too much money, needed too much time off because of age, Infirmary, or were just not dressing right.  Fifteen years is certainly a good run for any TV show and these judges certainly earned their time off from the grind of doing a show.  It could also, and appears to be that the producers decided that the younger desired demographic prefers celebrity over experience.

First a Quiz.  Who do you most remember, outside of the contestants?

Who Wants to be a Millionaire      started in 1999                                                  

American Idol                                      started in 2002                                                  

Dancing With the Stars                    started in 2005                                                  

So You Think You Can Dance          started in 2005                                                  

America’s Got Talent                        started in 2005                                                  

The Voice                                              started in 2011                                                  

Regardless of your age or demographic, my guess is that your pick was one of the more veteran judges or longer lasting hosts.  Did the judge’s age, previous reputation, and experience provide credibility for the show?  Or was it just because they were put on a pedestal and got to sit at the table?  Somebody, host, presenter, or the judges on the panel gave the shows enough stature to become popular in the first place.  To answer that, ask yourself, of the judges on the panel at any given time, whether permanent or guest, whose remarks carried more weight?  Whose opinion explained more about the dancing, and whose opinion better described the progress or changes of the contestants?

In any competition where the result cannot be measured by a time clock, finish line, or pure endurance, the quality and impartiality of judging matters.  It is perfectly acceptable for the producers to decide if declining numbers or audience share comes from the actions of any participant, judge, or dancer.  It is also to be expected, that they would look for whether the loss of numbers might be made up for with a change in preferred demographics to attract more, or higher paying advertising.  To date, it seems that the choices are either arbitrary, have more to do with personalities than dancing, and have less to do with providing the audience impartial advice from a trusted source.

Len Goodman’s departure, if voluntary, is certainly deserved with all his work developing and promoting the show in the US.  We can only hope this show will, like Strictly Come Dancing in England, select a certified champion and seasoned judge like Shirley Ballas or an American Ballroom Champion over an amateur or dancing pro with newly acquired celebrity status

Season 17 of So you Think You Can Dance also replaced judges Paula Abdul, Mia Michaels, and Jason Derulo. While there may be a legitimate question as to why a pop singing star like Jason Derulo was qualified to be a dance judge, few could doubt Paula Abdul’s credentials as a star, or Maya Michaels choreographic expertise.  The replacement’s credentials for judging appear to have more to do with fame, than any acknowledged understanding of social or ballroom as a dance form.  In fairness, So You Think You Can Dance has minimized traditional or couple dancing for a long time.  Failing to have a senior ballroom judge and advocate like Nigel Lythgoe impacts the audiences understanding of this style of dance.  Alexis’ 2022 result only shows the strengths ballroom dancers have that translate to doing other styles as well.

Cat Deeley by all accounts, has been an ideal host for SYTYCD.  She provides a soft and always smiling introduction to the audience of each participant, and never shows favoritism toward any one participant to influence opinions.  Her early expertise hosting children’s talent shows in England likely provided her with the experience needed to deal with the varied, and often emotional participants in the series.  Her accent helps to immediately draw the audience back to her, so she can keep the pace of the show working

Tom Bergeron used his presentation and hosting experience with Hollywood Squares (1998 to 2004) and America’s Funniest Home Videos (2001 to 2015) to wonderfully connect the audience to our art form.  His ever-generous expressions to the contestants, and easy banter with the judges, made it fun for the American public to relate.  His ability to remain in awe of the dancing, and the couples gave space for Len Goodman and the judges to describe the dances to an uninformed public.  The loss, whether for political reasons as has been suggested, or the desire to try to attract a younger demographic, was certainly a loss for the audience and the show.

I have previously written that the DWTS concept would require bigger and more renowned stars to remain popular.  There is no doubt that the quality of dance on this show has improved over the years.  The question is whether this also made bigger stars less inclined to participate.  Not only from a “looking bad is not an option” in my life now, but from the time required to practice and participate is less available to already booked celebrities.  So You Think You Can Dance has long ago left the, “Oh, we used to dance to that music” crowd.  Now what they are going for are purely artistic styles of dance and dancing.  This may become an ideal minor league for dance companies, choreographers needing dancers for a video, and developing minor companies looking to add star power.  All that is good, but not what the audience expects on popular TV.

Michael Reichenbach

Published in Dance Week

January 27, 2023

Vol XXXXVI, No. 10

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