After 30 seasons, Dancing With the Stars is about to enter a whole new era. The show has aired on ABC ever since it premiered in 2005, thriving (some years more than others) on one simple premise: Celebrities who are not known for dancing are paired with professional dancers, and each week, they dance, while viewers vote to decide who stays on the show. Small details have changed over the years, but viewers continue to be enthralled by watching stars of all calibers learn a new skill on national TV.
But in the past 17 years, the world has changed, and with it, television has changed. Broadcast channels have fallen to the wayside, while streaming has taken over, creating a whole new way of watching series. In a lot of ways, Dancing With the Stars was the ultimate representative of traditional TV. It required live viewing in order for fans to vote for their favorite stars, and with its tendency to cast actors looking for a way back into the limelight via chaste ballroom dancing, it offered a sense of nostalgia. Now, times have changed, and Dancing With the Stars is changing with them by moving to a new home on Disney+. It will be the streaming service's first live series, allowing viewers from all corners of the country to watch and vote at once, marking new territory both for Dancing With the Stars and Disney+.
As it tries something new, Dancing With the Stars is also trying something old. Conrad Green served as showrunner for the show's first 18 seasons before leaving to produce other projects. Now, he's back at the helm, and in a chat with Metacritic, he previews what fans can expect from the rejuvenated, commercial-free 2022 version of one of TV's most reliable juggernauts.
And yes, there really will be no commercials, which means we'll see more of the behind-the-scenes action, including set changes, on screen. Or as Green teases, "I think we all just have to accept that this is more Broadway now than it was ever before."
A lot of changes have been made over the past few years that riled up fans. What was your first thought when you came back and got a good look at how the show was running?
I think the team has done an incredible job for the last few years, particularly in the face of COVID. The quality of the performances and the look of the show — all of those elements are just amazing. I think the team's done a really good job while I've been away, and the show has advanced and changed in many ways. Obviously, COVID really took away one of the most important things for me, which is an audience in the room and a sense of people being able to be a bit close to each other and respond to each other. And so, my first thing really was trying to work out, well, how do we make it feel a little bit more natural, and get a little bit of that warmth and humor and human relationships back with each other, make it feel just a bit more natural to watch?
Obviously COVID is still here, and there's still a threat, and so, we've got a balancing act, but we're trying everything we can to get back to some of the elements of the show that could be more social and human, while also being COVID safe. That was part one. On the most basic level, the show is all about people, right? It's about the journey that the star goes on with their dancer and trying to learn these things and overcoming struggles, so it's just really sticking to the core of what makes the show powerful to watch, which is storytelling, ultimately, and performance. Those two things go hand in hand. And I think if you lose sight of that, that's your peril. You want that engagement. You want that passion for what they're doing. You want that honesty in tracking that story and you want to see these amazing performances. So largely, I want to carry on in the tradition of what the show has become. Because I feel like every time you see a new person on it, the story starts again. It's fresh, because everyone's story is slightly different.
How does the show look different on streaming?
The big consequence of being on Disney+ is no ad breaks in the show this season. The whole show is two hours, live, back to back, no breaks, which for us, from a production point of view, is when we did a lot of our resets and things. We have to be super tight behind the scenes getting everything right, and the only way we can clear the floor is by going somewhere else for a beat.
[This] means you've got the skybox back, and we've got Alfonso Ribeiro coming in as co-host alongside Tyra Banks, so it'll be more like the balance there was when it was Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews. When there's a host front of house and a host in the skybox, I really like that because I think it's fun to have an area where the celebrities can go and decompress a bit, and you can get to know them a little bit better. It's all about getting to know these people and investing in their lives and their story and their challenges that they're trying to overcome.
And I think Alfonso is a huge addition to the show because he's passionate about it. He knows exactly what it's like to be in those shoes. He's a champion — one of the best champions we've ever had — so on all levels, I think he's so connected to the show. I think he will have a lot of fun with them, and I think it will really help the show along.
What specific things are you doing to make the show feel more natural, even with COVID protocols?
It's really about getting people back together. So, we have got an audience in the room. It's not quite as densely packed as it was, for obvious reasons, but that should provide real atmosphere and response to the judges and to the dances. And I think that really helps motivate people's dances — to be able to see their family members at ground level looking at them. Those kinds of connections are really important.
In the skybox, we'll see the other couples behind the couple being interviewed. They can cheer for each other. You can have banter between them. You can see some of those friendships and things happen. That sense of community, that sense of the show feeling like a school play, you can't really do that if everyone's in different pods in different parts of the room.
Behind the scenes, everybody's vaccinated, everybody's tested, all of our couples, when they're not together in the back of that shot, will be separated to make sure we comply with all the correct rules about social distancing. So, it's a bit of a dance — if you'll excuse the pun — for us in terms of making it look like it's back to normal when we're still making sure we protect everyone in the way we're meant to, as per all the regulations.
Can you talk about voting, and how the show will stream? Everyone will be able to watch at once, right?
Yeah, for the first time, the show is basically simulcast everywhere. If you want to be able to vote, you have to watch it live, and that means 8 p.m. on a Monday, the same time as it always used to broadcast on ABC. But [that's] 5 p.m. on the West Coast and everywhere in between. Canada can also watch live and vote. So, as long as you've got a stream where you can watch this, you can vote. That means everybody votes all at once, so in some ways, it's the most satisfying way of doing this. It was never really possible on a broadcast network, but that's one of those benefits of being on streaming. It's much more simple.
Is that a relief to you at all? There were many years where the voting felt unfair because half the country couldn't watch the show, but had to vote anyway if they wanted to support a favorite star, so the votes could never really be about the dances.
I think it's a simpler proposition. It's never without problems. But at the same time, I think it's really nice as a viewer to be able to watch a whole episode and see someone leave at the end of that episode in response to how everyone has voted. So at least it's a level playing ground for everyone. I never particularly liked the West Coast not being able to see the show, but being able to vote on it. [Now] everyone's got the same access, and you can vote for whoever you want from the first moment of the show, even if they've not danced yet. That's always been the case, and that's fine if you're really passionate about someone, but it is nice that the window is defined and accessible.
I've always felt that the show has been trying to reflect the way the country is and reflect different stories of different people within the country. We've got 16 celebrities. One of our couples is a same-sex couple and it seems perfectly natural to me. We've always tried to reflect people from all different corners of the entertainment world, and frankly, for it to be Season 31 and we're having our first drag queen on feels a bit slow to me.
I could not believe Shangela was only the first drag queen on Dancing With the Stars.
Exactly. We're really open minded about the people we have on the show. Sometimes you get criticism for people we have on the show, and we've had that from both sides of the divide. I think our answer has always been that we try to be a broad church and to allow people of all different types to take part. We want to reflect the America that exists today, and the entertainment world as it exists. We want to be as tolerant and inclusive as we can of all different people.
Selma Blair was also a huge surprise to me, not only because she's such a big star, but I'm very curious how she's going to dance given her struggles with Multiple Sclerosis.
I think physically, it's a challenge. And the truth is, as with everything with the show, I don't really know until we get there. That's the point of live TV, and that's the point of this process. She's been incredibly tenacious, and she's a wonderful woman. She really enjoys it, and it is important to her; I think she's really felt something from it. Obviously, it's challenging, but we've had lots of people with challenges in the past, and I think that's something we've been proud of: how we tried to show that having physical issues doesn't mean that you can't take part, that you can't dance. We've had some wonderful performances by people who are challenged in different ways. How exactly it's gonna turn out, I don't know; it's a live show. But we're confident she can have a great experience on the show, and from what I've seen of the dance that she's planning for show one, it's amazing.
Was it different, casting overall for Disney+?
It's always tough because you're always trying to say something new, keep up the caliber of people, make sure there's something for everybody. The entertainment world, since we launched in 2005, there's been so many changes to who are big stars and how people consume and watch entertainment. The first show of this launched before the iPhone, and now we've got a world where Charli D'Amelio has 145 million followers on TikTok. Charli D'Amelio was a baby when the show launched. So the challenge, I think, when running the show is to try and reflect a new world, but make sure you don't leave behind people who love the show and are passionate about it, and make sure that there are stories and celebrities that they can relate to. Hopefully, when you get everyone together under one roof to watch the show, they start to fall in love with people they never knew about and start to understand more broadly some of these different celebrities who have different fan bases. So it was, as always, a challenge to try and keep making better casts.
Plus TikTok has changed the dance world completely since you left the show.
Absolutely. It totally changed the game. And that's what's interesting about the show. You have to change with the times. It's partly why we're on Disney+. It's partly why there are TikTok stars on it. Because that's where the action is. It's where our audience is. We want to always be bringing new people in. We want to be able to cherish the audience we have who love the show, and try and bring them what they love, too. Obviously it's a tricky thing to make everyone happy. You'll never do it all the time, but we'll try.
Dancing With the Stars streams live Mondays at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT