Pop Culture

Casting with the stars

After eight weeks and thousands of steps, “Dancing With the Stars” is in the homestretch with its tenth season. The final four are firmly in place: a sportscaster, a figure skater, a football player and a member of a pop band.

But the remaining contenders — and especially front-runner Nicole Scherzinger — aren’t a huge surprise once you take a closer look: Sportscaster Erin Andrews strutted her stuff on her university’s basketball dance team. Evan Lysacek regularly performs gracefully on skates as the International Skating Union’s No. 1 ranked skater in the world (plus he’s an Olympic gold-medal winner). And Scherzinger has been dancing with the Pussycat Dolls since they were a burlesque group in the late ‘90s.

Perhaps the lone surprise is Chad Ochocinco. Sure, he’s a nimble football player (just like season-three winner Emmitt Smith), but he’s had his struggles and fair share of lower scores on the dance floor.

Paired up as they were against actors, reality TV stars and an aging astronaut, is anyone truly surprised that the regularly athletic, lithe and coordinated stars have mostly performed better than the amateurs?

“Dancing” executive producer Conrad Green may be. He insists that not one of them is a “ringer.”

“There’s definitely an advantage to have danced before, and it makes the process easier for you — but the process being easier for you could become a disadvantage,” he explained.

That's one of the oddities of reality television, namely that it’s as constructed and scripted as anything else on the small screen. A show doesn’t get to be one of the top-rated shows in the country without knowing the fine art of manipulation. Many crying foul over this season’s results miss that fine distinction.

According to Green and other reality producers, audiences don’t come to reality TV programs just to see good cooking, nice dancing or women fall all over themselves to capture a rose. They’re there for a story. And someone who can step onto “Dancing’s” stage as a fully formed expert isn’t necessarily someone who has a story to tell.

“Look at Kate Gosselin,” said Green. “She wasn’t a great dancer — she’d admit that herself. But I think loads of people felt she was a proxy for them on the show. I think they felt, ‘This is what I would be like on a show surrounded by people who come from a showbiz background and are used to being on a stage or are used to live performance.’ This is a woman who had none of that. So I think the audience got behind her because of that.”

“They call that the person’s character, or story arc,” explained Marc Marcuse, president of Reel Management, an agency that places reality-show stars in roles after their program ends.

“If someone goes on the show and leaves the show as the same person, it’s not that interesting,” he said. “In movies, all characters have an epiphany or change in the course of the film. On a reality show — to see it for real — it’s fascinating to watch. People want to see growth, and some of the most popular people on shows are the ones who have changed over the course of a season.”

And sometimes, it may take someone with previous experience to really highlight the growth in another contestant.

‘You want honesty and personality’Reality-show scripting begins with the initial casting, where agents may look for one or two cornerstone members of the final cast and then set up the participants around those personalities or talents. Often, said Green, a star who doesn’t work in one season’s cast can prove ideal for a later season.

“A lot of it is about getting balance and a cast that’s fresh and new and interesting every time,” he said. “You want honesty and personality, people that are going to be lively to watch, who can articulate what they’re going through and share with the audience their frustrations. It’s like trying to make a dinner party a roaring success — you want to know the personalities of the people who are going to be there first.”

What “Dancing” does not do, however, is test for dancing skills. Stars don’t “audition” to be on the show (and most of them would probably refuse to if asked).

According to Lindsay Drucker, a Chicago-based casting freelancer who has worked on shows such as “Project Runway” and “The Biggest Loser,” the uniqueness of the show itself is a leveler of skills.

“When you get all of these people together, they’re not in their element and they’re thrown into unique, challenging projects or dances. And in that sense, everyone is on a level playing field,” she said. “They don’t know what’s going to be asked of them. So whether they’re professional or amateurs, they’re all discovering as they go. Amateurs can shine, too.”

Take season five of “Dancing,” for example. Race-car driver Helio Castroneves did well throughout the competition but really shined the last month. He ended up beating front-runner Melanie Brown of the Spice Girls for the mirror ball trophy.

Ensnaring viewersEven if Green and his casting experts went out and specifically looked for stars with dancing experience, they wouldn’t be any different than, say, the casting directors for shows such as “Top Chef,” where submitted applicants are often paired up with those specifically solicited for the series.

“We do a lot of cold-calling to people,” said Randy Bernstein, founder and president of Casting Duo. “When I go into a city for ‘Top Chef,’ I get a restaurant magazine and call every single restaurant in there and ask if anyone was interested in being a part of that show, or I walk into restaurants and meet people. We are looking for people who can be themselves. I’d rather have someone who doesn’t want to be on a reality show, be on a reality show. They’re not in it for the stardom.”

The proof that producers know what they’re doing is in the pudding: “Dancing” fans were riled up enough to get involved in whether Gosselin stayed or went by voting, or whether someone with dancing experience should even be in the competition when they voiced their opinions online. Viewers have been ensnared, just as producers planned. The script works.

All of that said, noted Green, bear in mind that even though it’s called a reality show, “Dancing” is something else entirely.

“It ultimately is a piece of entertainment,” he said. “As time goes by the gap between those who started off the season being really proficient at dance, and those who started off the season with two left feet narrows every week. In the course of our show, people have been known to grow and grow, and seem to be behind in ability — but at the last minute they come through. That’s what the audience wants to see. That’s a fair competition.”

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.