The tenth season of ABC's Dancing with the Stars has been on TV for a month, and of the four broadcasts in which contestants competed, Kate Gosselin or Pamela Anderson have come last, or nearly last, in the performance order. That's no accident.
Kate and Pam are the most buzzed-about contestants this season, and that includes astronaut Buzz Aldrin himself, who went to the moon and back but was no match for Pammy's bazooms and splits. Kate's the queen of the gossip rags, popular with women, and Pam's the queen of Internet searches by men. The longer ABC waits to show them strutting their stuff, the longer audiences must sit through commercials. And the higher ratings go.
It's one reason that this season, DWTS has sashayed to the front of the ratings pack. In the first week of April, about 23 million Americans watched DWTS. Part of its success is weak competition on other networks. Simon Cowell is sullenly presiding over his final season of Fox's American Idol, which has fallen out of tune thanks to a batch of loser talent. No show in half a decade has eclipsed the ratings titan of Idol, but DWTS has, and it has done it with its results show, which runs against Idol's performance broadcast.
"With reality competitions, the commercial pod right before the winner is revealed generally is best at retaining the program audience," says career TV analyst Steve Sternberg of The Sternberg Report.
So it follows that the last commercial break before the voting commences is also powerful. When maximum viewers can be guaranteed, ad rates go higher. Kate and Pam go last because we have disposable income that advertisers want us to spend.
It would be a mistake to assume that most audience members will just skip through the commercials on their TiVos. "Keep in mind that two-thirds of homes don't have DVRs," says Sternberg.
Dancing with the Stars' producers did not provide an official response about the determination of the order in time for our deadline.
If you watch the ABC network for more than five minutes, you know that the directive to stretch out the DWTS spotlight must come from the very top. It's embarrassing to watch a hard-core newsman like George Stephanopoulos plug his network's prime-time fluff by gushing, "last night was all about the storytelling," as he did last week on Good Morning America, but ever since the Michael Eisner days, cross-platform plugging has been the ABC way. Since the mid-'90s, breathless synergy for all things ABC and Disney fills time on the network's news shows, during commercial breaks, and during The View.
The center of the gossip is usually Kate "Gee Whiz, I'm Just an Average Mom" Gosselin. Is she neglecting her kids? How does she juggle it all? Is she fighting with her dancing partner, Tony Dovolani? (He certainly looks like he's fighting with her -- whenever they dance, it's as if he's dragging a heavy refrigerator box across the garage.)
Once the audience is whipped into a state of passive curiosity over these non-issues, they're teed up to sit through each competition episode, which at this point in the season lasts for two hours. So far, the two media obsessions have fallen late on the roster (ABC's episode guide is here), forcing audiences to sit around longer:
Week 1 (11 dancers)
Kate Gosselin -- second to last to dance
Pam Anderson -- last
Week 2 (11 dancers)
Kate Gosselin -- last
Pam Anderson -- third to last
Week 3 (10 dancers)
Kate Gosselin -- second to last
Pam Anderson -- danced 6th out of 10
Week 4 (9 dancers)
Kate Gosselin -- third to last
Pam Anderson -- last
The two women have wildly different skill levels, but at least their abilities are suited to their backgrounds -- Pammy is lithe as a lifeguard and Kate is wobbly as an unsteady toddler -- but besides their placement on the rundown, they have other things in common. They're both blonde, but not naturally. Pamela Anderson's biggest assets were built by surgeons, while Kate shuffles around like something Dr. Frankenstein made. Between the two of them, there are lots of train wrecks worth sticking around for.
Idol pioneered this type of lopsided docket for TV talent competitions. Last year, Adam Lambert routinely performed late in the show, presumably because audiences were consistently wondering what theatrics the showman was about to unleash.
The practice, though, is as old as variety itself. Much like a vaudeville bill, the performance list of reality competition shows is weighted, with headliners held back while the management burns off the dog acts and olios. This year on Idol, the presumed front-runners, Crystal Bowersox and Siobhan Magnus, are usually kept until the latter half of the mix (for proof, the hilariously on-target commentary by The Idolizer preserves the order of the set lists).
Given Kate's terpsichorean rigor mortis, ABC might actually be doing her a favor by placing her performances deep in the second hour of the broadcasts. The phone lines open for voting as soon as the show ends, when her efforts are fresh in the minds of the audience as it puts its fingers to the phones. Kate may have been borne along by pity to last longer than she would have had she routinely gone first.
American Idol watchers have long noted the statistical tendency for a first-half performer to get voted off. "Of the four performance shows this season," noted BuddyTV's John Kubicek in March, "the ratings for the second hour are always up by more than half a million viewers of the first hour ... More people watching means a larger pool of potential voters."
And if the producer's favored contestants remain longer and viewership holds, then they make more ad revenue.
The "Wait-for-Kate" tactic may be in its latter days, though, since the dancer is probably on her last legs. She's consistently fallen at the bottom of the pack in voting, too, and as the American tolerance for her fades, her dancing days are numbered, probably down to hours.
When that happens, watch ABC to see who else it touts as the must-watch figure of controversy. My prediction: We'll go from "Wait-for-Kate" to "Wait-for-Jake" Pavelka. The former Bachelor's hunky magnetism will be a nice second-best replacement for Kate's mommy appeal.
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