Dancing With the Stars looks and feels a lot different these days. Without the luxury of the Tuesday night results show, Monday’s two-hour installments are crammed with competitive performances, random filler interviews, lively exhibition-dance bumpers, and often-rushed eliminations based in part on the previous week’s viewer votes. By the end of the show, the disconnect between what just happened on-screen and what’s about to happen can be jarring — like last week, when Elizabeth Berkley and her partner Val Chmerkovskiy faced elimination mere minutes after scoring a perfect 30 on an extra-beefy salsa trio.
Well, Dancing With the Stars isn’t thrilled about the format changes, either. Showrunner Conrad Green spoke to EW about this season’s downsizing pains, the judges’ enduring dilemma, and the future of the series:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How has the adjustment been to Monday nights only?
CONRAD GREEN: Obviously, it wasn’t our choice not to have a results show. A results show works, and that is the clearest, simplest way — cause and effect, week to week. But the network, they wanted to launch the Marvel show [Tuesday’s Agents of SHIELD], and some comedies after it, and they have their own priorities and that’s perfectly valid. So then we have the problem of what do we do? Because if you’ve got one night a week, all of the options aren’t brilliant. It’s then a question of which one is least bad.
Did you look at other options beyond having last week’s votes carry over to the current week?
We looked at the option of same-night voting, but that would alienate half the country — although, in terms of audience, probably about two-thirds of the audience’s votes come from the Eastern and Central time zones. So you could definitely get a good result, but you’d alienate all those other people.
The Voice just tried that last week with the Instant Save.
Believe me, we talked about it. But whatever you do in this situation, people are gonna get upset about it. The only ideal one is to have a results show the following night.
What about doing a brief, almost commercial break-like announcement the following night?
Well, I think it’s difficult if it’s that following day, because then the elimination — one of the key bits of the drama, one of the key moments of the show — wouldn’t be on the show. It’d be somewhere else. So while that would work effectively, you’re kind of throwing away one big moment of the show. You know, if you’ve spent all this time watching Valerie Harper and crying, you want to hear the interview, you want to be part of the show, you want to see her relationships with other people. So that was never really an option.
We also talked about the possibility of getting everyone to learn a dance and then eliminating someone at the top of the following show, which is the other way you could do it. And then people could vote on the people who are left behind. And that was the toss-up, really. But So You Think You Could Dance did that, and it was not good, to the point where they changed it. There’s very few options. If you want everyone in the country to vote and you only have one show a week, then something has to give. I think starting the show with an elimination doesn’t feel right. And also, it’s very difficult to turn to ten people, eight people, and say “All of you are gonna learn a dance; for one of you, it doesn’t matter.” If you feel you’re in the bottom of that group and you didn’t do well, you’re thinking really? I’m gonna do blood, sweat, and tears? And then it’s such a terrible letdown. I think it really affects morale as well.
So while this is a slightly odd system, it’s the system we actually used in the first season — this process of last week’s public vote with this week’s judges’ scores.
Can you break down how the results are calculated?
We add together the share you got of the public’s vote from the previous week with the share you get of the judges’ scores on Monday night. So in this case, the public score’s percentages we already know. But we can only have the final percentages once the judges’ scores are final.
How clued-in are the judges to the popular vote?
The judges have never known those figures. They’ve never seen a single vote. There’s two voting documents — one comes from the phone company and one comes from ABC.com, which includes the Facebook votes. We get those numbers and put them into a grid and determine the results from the control room, on the spot. It’s only me and [a representative of ABC’s] Broadcast & Standards who see them. No one, even the upper execs on the show, ever sees that document. And so while the judges might have the same opinion that anyone else has as to how popular certain couples are — they don’t know.
In practice, it’s kind of difficult for the judges because no matter what they do, they seem to get lambasted. Look, don’t get me wrong, all of us as viewers have our own opinion about scores that are given. Sometimes you go, “Really?” But then again, I’m not a dancer. They are from dance and they know this. And I kind of think you’re never gonna be able to give a score that everyone can agree on. You can tell that just by reading the comments below the line. People are furious that it was either too high or too low.
And the judging on this show is very difficult — we’re the only show where they have to hold up a number and be accountable for it. You could be fake, or damning, or warm — but you don’t have to be consistent. Our judges can say what they want. But then they have to hold up a paddle. So sometimes they’ll be trying to say something encouraging — they feel someone’s having a tough time, so they’ll say something quite nice — but then they’ll hold up a 7. And people say “Well why would you do that?” Well, because they don’t want to beat the guy up! The next week, they might give him an 8 but be more critical. It’s really tricky, because you also want to be able to encourage, give notes, plan improvement. And then there’s the question: Do you judge people relative to each other? Do you judge on just, that feels like an 8 to me? Or do you judge it relative to the contestant’s improvement?
I suppose it may always seem to angry viewers like the judges are “in on it” and orchestrating results.
The problem is, you can’t ever convince people that’s not the case because people just choose to believe that. It’s not the case. The whole point of this show — and it obviously is easier when the public votes after the judges instead of the public vote carrying over — but the point of the show is that the public along with the judges are picking the winner. So it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy for us. You want the voters to be involved in that process. This is why, when people say, “Well, the judges’ scores should carry more weight; it’s crazy if someone like Elizabeth goes” — well yeah, I get it. I’d have liked to see Elizabeth in the final, I must admit, because she’s great as a dancer. But then if the public really want other people there, I’m kind of fine with that.
So you’d never consider giving more weight to the judges’ scores?
We’d just get it in the neck for giving them even more power. We tried that [in season 14] when we did the Dance Duel, so there was a sense that the judges picked clearly the best dancer out of the two. People hated that. Or once, in the season where Ralph Macchio was on Week 8, I think, the judges could give extra points to the couple they thought was best, and then everyone accused them of fixing the final. So you kind of can’t win. I would always like the right balance of people to get there. But eventually it always seems to sort itself out, broadly.
Actually, the good thing this season is that we’ll have the finale on the Tuesday. So what we’re gonna do in the last week is on the Monday show, four couples go in, and the public vote from the week before will combine with the judges’ scores from Monday night, and the fourth place couple will be eliminated on that Monday night. And then the three couples will go into Tuesday’s show and we add the public scores from Monday night to Tuesday, after the freestyles. So for the final three couples in the Tuesday show, it will be based on the votes from the night before, not from the week before. And they’ll all dance one more time.
Ah yes, the final finale dance, where everyone always gets a 30.
Well, part of the problem for the judges is that you give 8s, you give 9s, you get to that point where it’s like, really? You get to the last point and you’re gonna turn around and give 7s? It always gets to be a narrower range because by that point they’ve kind of boxed themselves in with previous scores. And people get upset. But at least for the finale, the winner will be decided based on votes from the previous night’s dances. The only difference will be that in past seasons, we wouldn’t have eliminated someone on a Monday.
NEXT PAGE: Should the best dancer or most popular celeb win?
In your position, have you had to adjust expectations from wanting the best dancer to win to wanting the most popular “character” to win?
If someone who was a really poor dancer won it, I think that would be tricky. I genuinely don’t mind [who wins]. When Bristol Palin looked like she might win, I thought that could be problematic, given the quality of her dancing compared to the others. That was definitely a case of popularity kicking back on the dance ability — which I still think is valid, honestly. If tons of people are engaged with the show, we’re all winners, right? That’s all I want. All I want is people to care and get involved. I’d guess the amount of people who complain about things and probably don’t vote is pretty high.
What if Bill Engvall wins this season?
Well, the only way Bill will win this season is if a huge amount of the audience get behind him or his dancing improves quite a lot. And frankly, if that much of the audience wants him to win it, I kind of don’t care. That’s their choice. It’s the audience’s show. Take that element away from the audience, I worry that 1) it would be extraordinarily predictable, and 2) people never agree 100 percent with all the scores the judges give, so that’s gonna put them all out of touch. They’re not gonna have any way to remedy and support the show.
How long do you see Dancing With the Stars continuing?
I really don’t know. I’d love to make it for as long as ABC will want it and the public will want it. What’s interesting is we’re still the most-watched reality TV show on at the moment. The Voice has enormous marketing — it’s a very good show — and we’re head to head with it. And we’re still getting more viewers than they are. The difficulty for us is the demographic of our audience, and that’s the way we’re judged. I value every single one of our audience, but as it stands, we are always trying to attract the younger demographic. It’s a balancing act trying to satisfy multiple age groups to make this show satisfying for all. Creatively it’s difficult for a show, when you get to a 17th season, to keep it fresh while still keeping to the core of it.
So in a way, might the absence of a second hour to fill have helped the show avoid a creative rut?
Well, we open with a big performance number, we put all sorts of the 10-second bumpers in there. We’re trying to make it feel like a big, live dance party. When you get to know our other dancers, there’s such a quality to those bumpers. They’re fierce.
I’ve particularly been loving Sharna!
Oh, yeah, Sharna. Amazing. She burns a hole in the screen. The quality of those bits, they’re amazing. The theory of this whole show is, it’s got a lifespan. I do think the voting isn’t ideal. Ideally we’d be in one time zone and everyone could do it live and you could vote there and then. Or do it later that night like they do it in the UK. But we’re doing what we can with what we’ve got. It’s very difficult being against The Voice. I think a lot of people who watch that, if that wasn’t on, would probably watch us. And that is a significant chunk of our younger audience. But I think given all that, we’re kind of proud that we’ve still got the biggest audience after this many years and this many episodes. We try to make it fun and exciting and vibrant.
Has there ever been a specific endpoint in sight — 20 seasons, for example?
This isn’t Breaking Bad — it’s not like there’s a narrative. Don’t think Vince Gilligan’s working out the ending as we speak. It’s a show that I think has to evolve, and the question is trying to pitch the evolution of it in a way that we don’t lose our essence, but we keep changing and bringing in new faces. People always cringe when new people emerge, but then within a couple of seasons they warm to them. It’s important to keep that new blood coming in, keep that enthusiasm.
Can you think of any changes you’d like to put in effect for next season?
A lot of it depends on: Does the results show come back? It’s conceivable. I really don’t know. It’s an open book at the moment. The people at the network have changed, this season. And I’m sure they’ll take stock at the end of all this and review what we’re going for. What’s gonna happen to our Tuesday night — is there a slot there? Is Dancing on a Monday? Once we’ve got that brief, that will determine a lot of where we go. We get given the hours and then we work out how to fill it, which is why we have a lot of these unusual rounds, these mini rounds. A two-hour show with six people in it is very different from a two-hour show with four people in it. You’ve gotta figure out how to fill those hours in a satisfying way that doesn’t break your competitors.
‘Dancing With the Stars’ airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.