1. Headline
  1. Headline
Image: Bristol Palin
Adam Larkey  /  ABC
There's no question Bristol Palin has improved her dancing skills, and the story of her growth is fueling her success on "Dancing."
By
TODAY contributor
updated 11/19/2010 12:35:35 PM ET 2010-11-19T17:35:35

Eight weeks and thousands of steps on, “Dancing With the Stars” comes to a season 11 finale on Nov. 22 and 23, starring the three faces of celebrity: the once-known (Jennifer Grey), the semi-known (Kyle Massey) and the “why?” known (Bristol Palin).

But it’s Palin, an object of controversy since she managed to not get eliminated in the first few weeks despite her low judges’ scores, who’s inflaming audience passions and keeping the “DWTS” ratings sky high. There’s been so many angry fans raising their voices in chorus both pro- and anti-Bristol — who began as an untried toe-tapper and has grown into a solid hoofer — that even the show’s executive producer, Conrad Green, isn’t sure how he feels.

“I’m conflicted,” he said. “I love that there’s so much passion roused about this show. Unfortunately, with the nature of the series, we book people and after that we’re surfing the wave. We have no idea how this is going to pan out.”

He is pleased with Palin’s progress, calling her a “pretty good dancer now,” but does feel some regret over the loss of Brandy, who was ousted on Nov. 16. “We were all rooting for her, and it’s a shame not to have her in the finals,” he said. “I don’t like losing Brandy.”

Which just goes to prove that even though you may run the show, you can’t run the results. And the unexpected way in which this season has unfolded is nearly the opposite of last season, which ended in May.

Remember the brouhaha over Nicole Scherzinger, who was considered a “ringer” for being a trained and accomplished dancer even prior to joining “Dancing”? This year, on came Palin, awkward and full of mistakes, with a lightning rod of a mother cheering from the stands.

“You kind of can’t win,” said Green. “But the nature of this show means you’re always going to irritate or disappoint some section of your audience.”

'Coming out of her shell'
Many are far from disappointed with Palin, whose evolution mirrors former “DWTS” contestant Kelly Osbourne’s. In season nine, the daughter of Black Sabbath rocker Ozzy and wife Sharon appeared on the show with little discernable talent and danced off with a graceful third-place finish and the hearts of the audience, thanks to the way she blossomed before viewers’ eyes. Palin is proving it can be done again — amidst an even greater hailstorm of dissent.

  1. More on Bristol Palin on 'Dancing'
    1. Palin's success no surprise to Grey
      Getty Images

      'Dirty Dancing' star says show's not necessarily about the best dancer. Full story

    2. Has ‘Dancing’ lost its cred thanks to Bristol?
    3. Cosmic Log: How the 'Dancing' vote was hacked
    4. Love her or hate her, Bristol's a 'DWTS' winner
    5. Mama Grizzly stands up for her cub on Twitter

“Showing improvement is almost more important than being a brilliant dancer, because it gives the audience a sense of being involved in your progress,” said Green. “If you come out of the block really good and you’re getting great marks from the judges, there’s not many places you can go, or many ways for the audience to go in terms of feeling they’re watching you develop.

“Bristol has come from being a receptionist in a dermatologist’s office in Alaska to being on a show watched by 23 million people,” he continued. “You’re watching her come out of her shell, and it’s a rather lovely story to watch.”

Story over talent
Even die-hard skeptics, such as “DC Cupcakes” executive producer Terence Noonan, admits he’s been taken in. “I want her to be horrible!” he said. “But she’s actually gotten good.”

In a way, said New York Reality TV School founder Robert Galinsky, such a transparent transformation pulls the curtain back to show the inner workings of reality TV.

  1. More Entertainment stories
    1. Autistic ballerina dances her way into hearts

      In a popular YouTube video, the beaming little ballerina dances an entire four-minute routine seemingly perfectly, matchin...

    2. Every on-screen drink in 'Mad Men' in 5 minutes
    3. See the 'Dancing' stars' most memorable moves
    4. Emmy's biggest snubs? Cranston, Hamm, more
    5. 'Toy Story' toys burn up in prank on mom

“We now get to see that story arc does trump talent,” he said. “Talent is secondary to peoples’ stories and the journey that Bristol — the everyman, everywoman — is taking here,” he said.

Still, that’s why so many reality show fans are incensed, he added. “They understand what’s going on, but true reality fans don’t want to accept that it’s a popularity contest and (that it) doesn’t come down to the talent of a dancer. It comes down to what visceral reaction this contestant can give us.”

And, added Noonan, it’s about something else as well: “Keeping the numbers up,” he said. “It’s a ratings game — that’s the business.”

Start pretending
Numbers are also key in the voting process. “We balance the share contestants get from judges’ points on the night with the share they get from audience votes on the night,” explained Green. “When you get to later stages of the competition, when there’s a relatively small gap in points between all the competitors, the share they get is pretty similar.”

Though the show won’t discuss how many people vote, Green said that there was only a 3.5 percent difference in the tally between Grey and Palin. There was just 1.5 percent of a difference between Brandy and Palin.

“We don’t need a huge difference in audience votes to make one person safe in that context,” he said.

  1. Most popular

So perhaps in the end, viewers who remain increasingly irritated by the results of the show should start pretending that they’ve just been here to witness a great story punctuated by a little dance, rather than the other way around. It might make what’s likely to happen in the finals easier to digest.

“Win, lose or draw, Bristol has already won,” said Galinsky. “She showed connection with an audience is more important than the talent you’re competing with on a show. She’ll have her pick of opportunities after it’s all over — she’s now an expert on reality TV, so the possibilities are going to be endless for her.”

Noonan agreed: “Someone is going to hire her. I’m sure ‘Entertainment Tonight’ or ‘Access Hollywood’ or ‘Extra’ are already making deals with her. Maybe she’ll have her own reality show soon. The thing is, if you can get eyeballs to a TV, they’re going to hire you. You can watch if you like her, watch if you don’t like her, but you’re still watching. That’s what it’s all about.”

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion,” which was published in 2009.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Season 16

loading photos...
  1. Call the fashion police!

    "Dancing With the Stars" is known for its lively judges, sexy dancers, and of course, its sometimes questionable costumes. Check out some of our favorite odd outfits from the season, and why they may have been better off left in the dressing rooms. -- Anna Chan

    On March 25, Wynonna Judd and pro partner Tony Dovolani donned cop costumes for a sad quickstep that was slower than molasses. Oddly enough, judge Bruno Tonioli "loved the bonkers cop idea." We're not so sure "Fashion Police" boss Joan Rivers would agree. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Throw them a life saver!

    "Bachelor" Sean Lowe and pro Peta Murgatroyd offered up a sloppy jive that left the judges wanting on March 25. But their matchy-matchy yellow outfits only sank them further. Granted, Peta can pull off pretty much any atrocity, but Sean? What's up with those lemon yellow pajama bottoms? Don't lifeguards wear swim trunks? (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Stayin' alive

    Head judge Len Goodman got into the theme on April 1 when "DWTS" went back to the prom. Ruffled shirts were never hot, so why not make them hot pink? (Hey, we all know the costume department doesn't always choose the best colors.) (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pretty in pink

    Oh, the hair! The one glove! The pink bows on her dress! Co-host Brooke Burke has looked nothing but stunning all season (a surprise, as her wardrobe in the past has been rather questionable). Yet during prom week, she let go of the glam. We'll forgive her this one and only fashion faux pas of the season. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Going to the Y

    While the rest of the "DWTS" cast went to the prom on April 1, Peta and Sean somehow missed the memo and went to the YMCA instead as the Village People. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Prom? So what?

    Every prom has them: the anti-prom kids who are too cool for school. For the "DWTS" bash, that was Wynonna and Tony, who got all rockered out. Normally, we wouldn't take issue with this, but Tony! The mullet! Really?!?!? It's almost as bad as Maksim Chmerkovskiy's Mick Jagger wig from last season! (Nice boots, though.) (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. She's golden

    As gorgeous as Peta is, even she couldn't quite pull off those questionable gold bell bottoms and giant hair when she and Sean danced a highly praised quickstep on April 15. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Let's boogie!

    On April 22, Team Samba (or as Andy Dick preferred to call it, Team Pickler Dick) took the the ballroom bash with a '70s-themed dance complete with the decade's questionable fashions. Among the low lights? The guys' creepy mustaches. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Not so easy on the eyes

    On Latin Night April 29, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman and pro partner Mark Ballas took on a salsa that had the judges raving. What the panel didn't rave about were the seasick green/blue getups both wore. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A little young?

    On May 6, Aly and pro partner Mark were joined by Henry Byalikov for a trio jive full of shimmies and shakes for the 18-year-old gymnast -- and also a saucy red garter. Not that we're prudes, but did we mention yet that Aly's only 18? (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. LOUIE ANDERSON, KATHERINE WEBB, WYNONNA JUDD, TONY DOVOLANI
    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Above: Slideshow (10) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 16
  2. APOLO ANTON OHNO, KARINA SMIRNOFF
    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Slideshow (14) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - All-Stars
  3. TOM BERGERON, ANNA TREBUNSKAYA, JACK WAGNER
    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Slideshow (17) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 14
  4. Image: Cheryl Burke, Rob Kardashian
    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Slideshow (16) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 13
  5. Image: Chelsea Kane and Mark Ballas
    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Slideshow (14) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 12
  6. KYLE MASSEY, LACEY SCHWIMMER
    Adam Larkey / ABC
    Slideshow (13) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 11
  1. ASHLY COSTA, BUZZ ALDRIN
    Adam Larkey / ABC
    Slideshow (19) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 10
  2. ABC
    Slideshow (27) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 9

Video: Brandy and Maks: Not everything's about dancing

Discuss: In the end, can Bristol's journey be enough to win her the mirror ball trophy?

Kelly Osbourne finished very respectably in third place during her season. Do you think Bristol Palin, who is having a similar story arc this season, take the competition even farther than Osbourne did?

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. Party on, TODAY! See ‘Saturday Night Live’ costumes for Halloween 2014

    Live from Rockefeller Plaza, it’s Saturday Night Live! Willie and Tamron kicked off TODAY’s Halloween Boo-Nanza by channeling the peppy Spartan cheerleaders.

    10/31/2014 12:15:55 PM +00:00 2014-10-31T12:15:55
  2. Matt in drag, Hoda as Yoda: See 20 years of Halloween on TODAY

    No one does Halloween like TODAY. Relive two decades of awesome on the plaza as we rev up for 2014’s plaza bonanza.

    10/23/2014 5:43:31 PM +00:00 2014-10-23T17:43:31
  1. TODAY

    video TODAY: ‘Live from New York’ in ‘SNL’ Halloween reveal

    10/31/2014 12:14:50 PM +00:00 2014-10-31T12:14:50
  1. SNL; TODAY

    Mom Jeans! Watch TODAY ladies re-create classic 'SNL' skit

    10/31/2014 12:21:03 PM +00:00 2014-10-31T12:21:03
  1. TODAY

    Woman in viral catcall video: Why we made the PSA

    10/31/2014 12:00:19 PM +00:00 2014-10-31T12:00:19