Dancing with the Stars changing of its hosts—replacing Tom Bergeron and sideline reporter Erin Andrews with Tyra Banks—is the most notable and noticeable change the show has made in years. And its ratings have gone up this season, defying general trends.
The obvious question is this: Are ratings up because of Tyra Banks, or because Tom is no longer hosting? Even if that’s true, I’m still curious why ABC and/or Dancing with the Stars identified the host as the one thing that really needed to be changed. The frequently unbearable cheesy music got to stay but Tom Bergeron had to go? Len Goodman got to stay but Tom Bergeron had to go?
Wednesday, during a virtual press conference with Tyra Banks, new judge Derek Hough, and executive producers Andrew Llinares and Deena Katz, a critic asked why the show changed hosts. Llinares, who’s the showrunner, said:
“It’s all about evolution. I think any show like this that has been on for many, many seasons needs to continue to evolve. So, I think changing the host is all about evolution. It was about making the show feel fresh, making it feel new, kind of make it reach out maybe to a new audience as well as the audience that’s been there for years.
He was also asked about the lack of post-dance interviews with Erin Andrews—which, in my mind, is an actual improvement, though the TV critic who asked about that said he missed those interviews.
Llinares said, “I think it’s worked brilliant with the one host. I think it’s really refreshed the pace of the show, actually. I think it’s taken it to a new place in terms of moving faster and just feeling different. Because 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 of it. Doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. It just sort of gets a little boring, the rhythm of it.”
His use of the phrase “real danger” prompted a rather misleading headline (“There Was a ‘Real Danger’ to Keeping Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews”) that Tom responded to with a joke that he and Erin Andrews “sabotaged the spray tanner.”
The new “one host,” Tyra Banks, is “doing an amazing, amazing job,” Llinares added. “It’s just so wonderful to have her energy in the ballroom and her expertise as the host in the ballroom. I think she’s brought a new life to everything. It’s really exciting.”
Later, I followed up: I wanted to know explicitly why Tom Bergeron was fired. I asked, and I’m quoting myself here, “why Tom was a creative problem that needed to be fixed, and if his firing was at all because of his pushback about casting Sean Spicer last season.”
When Spicer was cast, Tom Bergeron tweeted about “a lunch with DWTS’ new Executive Producer,” who The Hollywood Reporter identified as Llinares, and said he was “convinced we were in agreement” about not casting someone connected to politics. But, as Tom tweeted, the show went “in a different direction” and cast Sean Spicer, whose lies about the crowd size at Donald Trump’s inauguration were the first of a blizzard of lies that are now threatening our democracy. But I digress.
So Tom publicly called out Llinares, though not by name, for going against his word—though, of course, we only have Tom’s version of that lunch. While Tom did challenge the show’s decision, it was with the softest criticism imaginable. He didn’t quit in protest; he didn’t condemn the producers or Spicer during the season; he just played along.
Still, the obvious question when Tom was suddenly and surprisingly fired this summer was if that was related: punishment, payback, or just a disagreement about the show’s creative direction.
I asked Dancing with the Stars’s showrunner Andrew Llinares. He did not answer.
He did respond, and while that response was 380 words long, according to ABC’s transcript, not a single one of those words actually included the name of the host who’d been fired, nor did he directly respond to what I’d asked. Instead, Llinares started with this:
“I think it’s what I said before. It’s about evolution. I think that when a show has been on for this many seasons, it’s very easy to stay in a place where it doesn’t feel like there’s anything wrong. But, actually, does the show still feel fresh, exciting, and new? And it’s really tough, and I think—I’ve worked on many shows of this type, and we’ve always been successful on all of those shows when we’ve continued to evolve and continued to move things on, and I think that’s something we’ve been doing right across the board with this show. The host is part of it. Bringing Derek in is part of it.
His complete avoidance of Bergeron is just really weird, if not suspicious. How hard would it be to say, We love Tom, and he brought so much to the show, for years, but ratings were sinking and we had to try something!
Llinares went on to detail some of the changes the show had made. My major critique of this season so far—besides Tyra’s awkward hosting—was that ABC and the show promised a “creative refresh” but delivered basically the exact same show, just with one new host, and with Derek Hough instead of Len Goodman.
Interestingly, Derek has not replaced Len. Llinares said at another point that Derek was going to join the show as its fourth judge, but travel restrictions have made it impossible for Len Goodman to travel from the UK to the US this season.
What were the actual changes then? Llinares listed them at various points during the session:
- “the set has been updated”
- “the way that we are filming the packages and even the little idents at the end of the packages, all of those things take the show into a place where it feels more current”
- “we’re not having backing dancers”
- “we’re not having huge set pieces”
- “we now have remote cameras in the studios rather than manned crews”
What do those things have in common? They’re the direct result of the pandemᎥc: The rehearsals are filmed with remotely operated cameras, the set’s update is simply about covering up where the audience used to be (“we redesigned the set, added in these extra screens,” Llinares said), and there are no back-up dancers to minimize people on set.
Linares admitted that these are not changes the producers would have made had they not been forced to by current circumstances: “it actually propelled us creatively to a place we probably wouldn’t have got to without it,” he said.
So again, the only change made not due to a virus rampaging across the world is the firing of hosts Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews. But also: That may have actually worked!
The season premiere had the show’s highest ratings in three years. On Monday, when Carole Baskin was eliminated from the competition, the show had competition from the Stanley Cup finals and still was the top-rated show of the night.
For a show to increase its ratings year to year is remarkable and rare; just staying the same as a previous season is viewed as success, because broadcast network ratings continue to sink, as viewers have more and more options. And the ratings I mentioned in the previous paragraph are overnight ratings, which are barely useful anymore, since so many people record and watch later; the ratings that measure people who watched within three or seven days on DVRs are reported later.
So why are ratings up? Is it the presence of Tiger King villain Carole Baskin? (If ratings drop next week, we’ll know the answer to that.) Is it Derek Hough at the judges’ table? Is it the laugh track audience? Is it Tyra Banks?
During the press conference, Tyra Banks gave her theories:
“I never look at ratings the day after. I just don’t. And then I get calls from the Dancing with the Stars team. They are, like, ‘Girl, have you seen the ratings? And I’m, like, ‘Okay. This sounds good.’ And then I open my phone, and I’m, like, ‘What?’ I never in a million years thought that we would be able to increase the ratings by this number.
I remember when I came to America’s Got Talent a couple of years ago to host, and when I came, the number raised 10%, and I remember the head of the network at that time came to the show, and he goes, ‘Do you understand what this means? You raised us 10%. Flat is the new up in television right now, Tyra.’ And so that was 10%.
Now I’m hearing numbers 30%, 38%, 40%. Like, this is unprecedented, amazing. And it’s not just me. It’s Derek coming and, like, being there and kicking ass as a judge. It’s our celebrities with that ‘r’ word, that relevancy, and then, like, tapping into their fans. It’s the producing. It’s all the new stuff that’s happening. I really think it’s this collective thing that has made the numbers go ‘boop, boop, boop, boop, boop.’ I’m happy.
I’m sure ABC is too.