“Dancing With the Stars” Season 13: What went wrong?

This is a serious post about a light-hearted subject: ABC-TV’s wildly popular reality show/dancing competition Dancing With the Stars“. For the 2010-2011 TV season, DWTS was ranked consistently in the top 20 overall, but this past Season 13 saw the show’s ratings plummet to the lowest in series history. Although most fans are content that the championship ultimately went to the truly amazing injured Iraq War veteran J.R. Martinez, that almost didn’t happen. J.R. and talk show host Ricki Lake were the two best dancers of the season, hands down. But the Kardashian fanbase drove their boy Rob Kardashian all the way to second place in the finals, displacing the far superior dancer Ricki who came in third. One more step, and the impossibly dreary and stiff Rob would have won the competition over every other dancer there, many of whom were light years beyond him in terms of skills and entertainment value. And the ratings tanked in what turned out to be the most spectacularly miserable season I’ve ever seen or heard about of DWTS. What went wrong?? Every hardcore fan out there has been analyzing the problem, and I am no exception to that. Here’s where I think the show went wrong last season:

For starters, the producers chose to invite Chaz Bono onto the show. Chaz is the son of superstar rock legend Cher and her late husband Sonny Bono. Chaz — who was born female — was the first transgendered contestant ever to appear on DWTS. Chaz was brought on to fill the now requisite “controversial contestant” slot, previously assigned to people like Bristol Palin (daughter of the highly divisive Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin) and unpopular reality show star Kate Gosselin. Chaz was an intentional lightning rod who was brought in to create a buzz and presumably to boost the ratings, just as Bristol’s appearance had. But Chaz’s addition to the cast sparked the most vicious controversy among viewers that I have ever seen. The war over Chaz led to death threats against him, and to a suspicious white powder being sent to the show at their studio lot. The powder turned out to be harmless, but fans will remember that the same thing happened in Season 11 when “controversial contestant” Bristol Palin was on.

Chaz was only a marginal star on his own, but the rest of the cast was equally obscure. Every season there are rumors of “A-list” celebrities signing on. It rarely happens, but the hardcore devotees of the show are usually watching the show for the professional dancers and other entertainment value, not for the names of the stars involved. Once the show is underway, there are always surprises in terms of who begins to shine and show talent on the dance floor, so “names” become irrelevant to the hardcore fan. BUT — when the producers bring in “controversial contestants” or someone whose name is connected to a very large group of supporters who normally don’t watch DWTS, we begin to see the dreaded “fanbase phenomenon” pop up. That is when someone does not have a built-in fanbase of legitimate supporters of their own, but instead their presence on the show somehow creates a pool of artificially generated fans who vote in blocks — sometimes without even watching the show itself — just to keep their star in the running, even if the star’s dancing ability is poor. The fake “fanbases” can be generated by “stars” who have political backing (like Bristol Palin and Chaz Bono) — or they can have famous names that are otherwise connected to a large fanbase (Rob Kardashian, and Chaz Bono again via Cher). When the fanbases kick into high gear, the voting is skewed in their celebrity’s favor, and we then begin to see mediocre stars get voted through to the detriment of better dancers that go by the wayside prematurely. We saw that with Bristol last fall and then with Chaz and Rob this past season. Bristol and Rob’s artificial fanbases were so powerful, they propelled those talentless dancers into the finals of their respective seasons while the core audience looked on in shock as great dancers (such as Brandy) left the show one after the other. Chaz’s mother’s fanbase kept him in it for six long weeks — that’s over half the season — in spite of his lack of skills and non-existent entertainment value. Because Chaz and Rob had fanbase advantages, we lost wonderful dancers Kristin Cavallari, Chynna Phillips, Carson Kressley, and David Arquette well before their time should have been up.

But in terms of ratings, why did Bristol draw in record numbers in Season 11, while Chaz and Rob’s participation resulted in the lowest-rated DWTS season ever? One answer is that Bristol’s mother Sarah’s conservative base is tremendously powerful and they were very well-organized. The voter efforts to keep Bristol on the show were so effective that they forced ABC to change their online voting policies afterwards in order to remedy the problem of people voting for Bristol through fake email accounts, sometimes without having even seen Bristol dance. They voted for her sight unseen all night long using hundreds of fake email addresses. And there were many Palin supporters who did watch the show in addition to voting, and they boosted the numbers considerably. But Chaz’s mother Cher was only able to get her fans to vote en masse to keep Chaz in it for six weeks. That is still much longer than his dancing warranted. But it’s unclear how many of these Cher fans actually watched the show. Many said they were just going to phone in their votes or vote online without actually watching the dancing. If they did that, then it might have contributed to the lack of eyeballs actually watching the program, and that depressed the ratings. As for Rob, the “Kardashian” name took him all the way to the finals, but that doesn’t mean that there were enough people watching him to offset the number of people who couldn’t care less about seeing him because his dancing was so lackluster and plodding. Consequently, Chaz and Rob did not help the ratings at all, and because their presence on the show displaced better dancers, I believe that Chaz and Rob were a large part of the reason why people started to tune out the show as the season went on.

The other major factor contributing to the abysmal ratings was the undiscussably biased judging. Pro dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy mouthed off at the judges when they came down hard on his partner, Hope Solo, week after week — nitpicking her performances to death, meanwhile giving other dancers of the same or lesser ability glowing praises and highly inflated scores. And Maks was right — the judges were prejudiced against Hope. There was no question of that for anyone who watched all of the performances each week. And there was a noted bias in favor of Rob and Chaz. What’s the problem here? The judges are supposed to rate the dancing in terms of technique and entertainment value. But they did neither of those things consistently last season. With some of the stars, they praised them to the heavens for the smallest improvement or flourish, while other stars got the proverbial “lump of coal” in their stockings and were just barely congratulated for their efforts. The judges’ scoring was laughable, with Hope Solo getting mid-range scores all season in spite of her steady improvement, while Rob Kardashian received high numbers and over-the-top compliments just for walking around the floor. Fans who watched this many times in disbelief said that Rob could have sat in the audience and received 10’s from the judges. So true. And the same goes for Chaz. He didn’t get 10’s, but he was obviously overscored all season. And then he had the nerve to complain about the judging after he had been eliminated, saying that everyone else received higher scores than he did. Yeah, they did. That’s because they were really better than Chaz was, even though some of the judging was not realistic for those dancers either. When the judges were scoring in a way that made it obvious that they were throwing the competition to Rob, many fans got angry, especially fans of Hope and Maks. Did they then tune out the show and not watch at the end of the season when Rob sailed into the finals instead of Hope? It certainly seems that way, but we have no demographic proof of which viewers left the show and why.

Another MAJOR problem last season: We saw way too much fighting and tension between the stars and their pros, and between the pros and the judges. As many fans have said, DWTS is supposed to be a fun show — it’s light and glittery, and the stars are supposed to look like they are having the time of their lives appearing on there. But this past season, we saw an overabundance of video clips of stars arguing with their pro partners, or the pros arguing with the judges, or just negative energy being hurled back and forth between various cast members and pros. Word to ABC: Your hardcore fans HATE all the drama. We want to have fun while watching DWTS. We see enough negative behavior in our real lives. We don’t need to feel like we are tense and uncomfortable watching angry people on TV fight with each other each week. That’s not entertainment. Also, that is not the kind of advertisement that makes celebrity contestants want to sign up for the competition. Why would they want to put themselves through all of that? So, we all really could have lived without the negativity, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the show suffered because people just turned their TV sets the hell off because they just couldn’t take it anymore. I know I almost did that myself.

As I see it, those were the huge factors that led to the downfall of DWTS Season 13: Cast members with huge artificially generated fanbases who rocked the votes for truly poor dancers Chaz and Rob, coupled with the most blatantly biased judging I have ever seen on that show. Add to that, the tension between various cast members and judges. How can the producers solve these problems?

First of all, we need to see some new judges. It’s time to bring in some new blood and get rid of the biased judges who are entrenched in their jobs. We don’t know if these judges have contracts that bind them to the show for any specific length of time. But if possible, give us three fresh faces — preferably people who are capable of expressing what it is they want to see from the stars technically, and then who can articulate a critique of the dancing that does not involve insulting the efforts of the performer, or gushing over another star by saying endlessly that he has allegedly “improved” so much each week. EVERYONE improves each week — or they are supposed to theoretically — that’s the point of the show. But with Rob, all we heard about was how much he had “improved”. He improved, but that doesn’t mean he was any good for all that, sorry to say. And in fact the longer Rob stayed in the competition, the lower the show’s ratings fell because the hardcore fans just weren’t buying it. And Chaz had a chip on his shoulder going in, so the judges treated him with kid gloves and walked on eggs so as not to offend him. It didn’t work. He got offended anyway — trashing the show in the media after he was eliminated, complaining about supposedly being treated unfairly, even though he was the most well-treated performer of the season. Hope didn’t like the way she was treated either, but at least she had something real to complain about, unlike Chaz who was pampered by the judges.

That’s what we got, and this is my *two cents* worth of ranting, for what it’s worth. This is not a serious topic, I know. But “Dancing With the Stars” is supposed to be fun, and some of us loyal fans take our fun very seriously. After we switch out the judges, let’s leave out the “controversial contestants” altogether. No more Chazes and Bristols, please. And no more Kardashians who have no talent, but a gazillion followers on Twitter who all skewed the voting in Rob’s favor. And lastly, no more fighting. If people can’t be nice and respectful, then at least don’t show those video clips each week. Make up pleasant stuff if you have to, but leave the drama alone. We have enough of that type of thing in our own private lives, but when we watch DWTS we want to have a laugh and appreciate good entertainment — not fussing and fighting and people who are so miserable they are threatening to walk out each week. Enough of that for real.

So, that’s my take on Season 13. I hope Season 14 will be better, and I am going to keep my eyes open for any changes that the producers might be making in the off-season. Let’s hope they can save this show before the fans all say “Adios, mofo” forever.

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About At Random

I am (Ms.) Jay White Feather, a lifelong New York City resident, born and raised on the mean streets of Manhattan back in the day. I am of Native American heritage -- a native New Yorker who grew up back when it meant something to be a New Yorker. And to me, it still does mean something.
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