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Image: Bristol Palin
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Polarizing teen mom Bristol Palin has changed "Dancing With the Stars" forever, although the show was hardly a pinnacle of respect to begin with.
TODAY contributor
updated 11/24/2010 9:12:52 AM ET 2010-11-24T14:12:52

Before "Dancing with the Stars" crowned Jennifer Grey its champion Tuesday night, there was all kinds of discussion about how the ABC competition series could lose its credibility if Bristol Palin won.

What credibility? A show that has featured Jerry Springer, Kate Gosselin, The Hoff, Tom DeLay, and Cloris Leachman has no credibility, at least not as some kind of serious dance competition. While the judges may deduct a point for an errant step, it is ridiculous to imagine that all viewers make decisions based upon those kinds of technical determinations.

Yet the aggrieved fans and critics of the show acted as if a series that mangles pop songs, has a set decorated with dangling strings of Christmas lights, and gives out only a crappy mirror ball trophy as its prize was somehow a serious competition, not a complete joke from day one.

What "Dancing with the Stars" actually has is popularity, and what it will have in the future is more Bristol Palins. Call it The Bristol Effect, and expect to see it a lot more in future seasons, perhaps as early as this spring.

"Dancing with the Stars" is immensely popular, even beating "American Idol" for a moment last spring. Its viewers are much older, which is something most people don't take into account, since the age of viewers probably correlates to the age of voters.

Slideshow: 'Dancing's' worst outfits (on this page)

"American Idol" has its teenagers, who vote for the person they want to date, and "Dancing with the Stars" has its senior citizens, who vote for the person who most resembles their grandchildren. That's an oversimplification, of course, but perhaps not far from the truth. At the very least, it has viewers who don't necessarily make rational decisions — nor do they have to, because there are no rules as to who people should or should not vote for.

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The show is not, as we've seen, necessarily about dancing. It may never be about dancing, but it's easy to forget that. It's also easy to forget that Bristol Palin is far from the only bad dancer to make it this far. Anyone remember Marie Osmond?

While the media and angry fans might like to blame Bristol's survival and Brandy's departure last week on a single, easily named thing — the Tea Party, ABC, producer manipulation, Sarah Palin — it's much more complicated and simple all at once. No one thing is responsible for getting Bristol Palin to the finale except the fact that she kept receiving enough votes to counter her lower scores.

Story: Controversial 'Dancing' finale seen by 24 million

In the end, Bristol Palin didn't win "Dancing with the Stars," and it actually doesn't matter.

Whether she'd lost or won, ABC and producers BBC Worldwide will unquestionably cast more Bristol Palins, and that doesn't necessarily mean more political figures. The most recent rumor is that Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell is being pitched to producers by Sarah Palin, a story preceded by reports that the show would cast Portia de Rossi as half of its first same-sex couple.

The show may try to recapture the attention Bristol Palin drew, but in reality, the buzz is unlikely to be replicated. Palin was a lot of unique things all at once: A political figure who could be vilified (both because of her mother and because she's a "teen activist"), a vilified figure who could be humanized, and a famous stranger.

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For the most part, she was an unknown figure going into the show, famous for her last name, her teenage pregnancy, and her relationship with Levi Johnston. But what else did viewers know about her? Not much. That meant she had the potential both to surprise and the ability to be projected upon by viewers who wanted to make her into whatever they imagined she should be.

David Hasselhoff, who was voted off first — surprisingly early considering his fame — didn't have anything left to give viewers that'd be surprising. Between his appearances on reality TV and appearances in tabloids, he'd already shown a lot. Bristol did not have a similar level of fame, so even if she danced like she had concrete blocks strapped to her limbs, she earned fans and thus votes due to her relative anonymity.

More than that, she was an unlikely contender, and if you think that alone didn't get her some votes, you don't understand anything about what makes some people pick up the phone and vote, and leaves others to complain on Twitter and Facebook about those who are voting.

Look no further than the voting troubles ABC said it suffered briefly on Monday night: its systems were overwhelmed because so many people were calling in. Were they calling in to support Bristol or oppose her, avenging Brandy's loss? It doesn't matter, because all those calls do is validate ABC's decision to cast her.

"Dancing with the Stars" may have surprised the world with Bristol Palin's popularity, but it is no surprise that the show itself is little more than a popularity contest.

Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photos: Season 16

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  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
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    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Above: Slideshow (10) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 16
    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Slideshow (14) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - All-Stars
    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
    Adam Larkey / ABC
    Slideshow (13) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 11
    Adam Larkey / ABC
    Slideshow (19) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 10
  2. ABC
    Slideshow (27) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 9

Video: Bristol on life after 'Dancing'


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