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The Bristol Effect has changed 'Dancing' forever

"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.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

is a writer, TV critic and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on and .