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"Dancing With the Stars" Secret To Success Is In The Stars

Jennifer Schultz |
August 30, 2011 | 3:44 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

If a show is around for 13 seasons, but never changes its basic formula, can it still be entertaining?

Back in its first season, “Dancing with the Stars” was the surprise hit of the summer season. Audiences were abuzz with the amazing transformation of each celebrity from having two left feet to becoming a bona fide ballroom dancer.

Now entering its 13th season, "DWTS" is a seasoned veteran of the ABC lineup, but its age is starting to show. The same three judges have offered commentary each season. The formula has stayed almost boringly consistent through the past 12 seasons, though producers have thrown in a few new dances and rules over the course of time.

The general arc of the show has even become predictable. A mediocre no-name will go home in the first week. Someone who can’t dance will go way too far in the competition because he or she is popular. There will be a professional athlete, a popular celebrity and someone who can actually dance in the final three, though it still remains a toss-up on who will actually take home that coveted mirror ball trophy.

Every season, celebrities who can’t dance are paired up with professional dancers and viewers marvel at their improvement (or lack of improvement) as the weeks go on. It seems like this type of entertainment would get stale after a while, so why has "DWTS" lasted 13 seasons when other shows, like “Skating with Celebrities,” have barely lasted one?

It all boils down to one thing: the stars.

Even though ABC has stocked the show with D-list “celebrities” in the past, audiences have tuned in season after season. Why? Because audiences form a connection with the stars, whether it’s because of their dances or the behind-the-scenes antics.

Unlike contestants on shows such as “American Idol,” which is definitely showing its age after only 10 seasons, "DWTS" contestants show noticeable improvement from the beginning to the end, which gives audiences something new to watch week after week. “American Idol” singers don’t go from horrible to great over the course of the season, but "DWTS" celebrities show steady progression during every episode.

As for the D-listers, the lack of recognition doesn’t seem to stop viewers from tuning in.

Even if audiences don’t know the stars initially, the connection viewers form with contestants isn’t from seeing their movies, listening to their music or watching their basketball games.  Connections are formed because audiences see a more honest, vulnerable side to celebrities while they’re sweating their way through rehearsals. These connections last far beyond when the contestants are kicked off, too, making "DWTS" into somewhat of an image rehabilitation clinic for stars such as Lisa Rinna, Brooke Burke and Stacy Keibler.

If the magic lies in the stars and audience connections, then this season is sure to be a winner.

Celebrities like actor David Arquette are a definite upgrade when compared to previous casts, which should draw in more viewers initially. The full season 13 cast list is here, but other cast highlights include Cher’s son and LGBT rights activist Chaz Bono, Iraq War veteran and soap opera actor J.R. Martinez and reality star Kristin Cavallari.

As the Los Angeles Times points out, each contestant’s back story is sure to grab audiences and keep them invested in the show, too. A good underdog story, for example, only draws more people in to see how the drama unfolds.

Additionally, without any, say, competitive figure skaters in the mix, the title appears to be up for grabs. The struggle to achieve that perfect score of “30” will be as competitive as ever, so audiences can expect to see some fantastic dances as well as outrageous comments from judges, particularly the ever-outspoken Bruno Tonioli.

Only time will tell if the new stars will keep "DWTS" fresh and entertaining. One thing seems certain, though: for now, audiences will still tune in to see who fumbles, who glides and who ultimately claims that coveted mirror ball trophy.

Maybe 13 seasons doesn’t automatically equal a stale show. Maybe it just means that ABC found the magic entertainment formula.

Follow Jennifer Schultz on Twitter: @neon_jenn and reach her by email here 

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