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New reality show wants to be ‘Dancing Idol’

Did Fox think it could take change the artistic endeavor from singing to dance and laugh all the way to the bank? By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“So You Think You Can Dance” may have slipped in the ratings between its first and second week, but it definitely picked up four fans: Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest.

Those four are the cornerstone of Fox’s “American Idol” franchise, the one that the network apparently thought was a formulaic product easily transferable to other performing arts.

It appears that the network figured it could take four random people, change the artistic endeavor from singing to dance, tack on some embarrassingly bad performances and judges’ putdowns in a British accent, and laugh all the way to the bank.

That’s certainly how it was marketed: It’s American Idol — but with dancing! Laugh as the delusional competitors have their dreams shot down! And based on the ad hoc nature of the show thus far, where sometimes it seems like the producers are making up the rules as they go along, it’s logical to assume the network hoped the sizzle from the record-setting “Idol” season would help turn run-of-the-mill summer hamburger into steak.

That’s not exactly how it’s worked out, since the show lost about 2.4 million viewers between week 1 and week 2. What that likely says is that viewers tuned in expecting to see something with the selling points of "Idol," and tuned out once it became obvious they weren’t present. If nothing else, it illustrates that the dynamic between the “Idol” panelists isn’t as easy to replicate as the network may have thought, which might just make the stars a little more valuable come contract time.

Anyone tuning in hoping to find something as entertaining as “Idol” was bound to be disappointed, because the show falls short of its parent in several key respects.

Nigel is no SimonA British guy, a woman with industry experience, another random guy and a host do not equal sure-fire chemistry and success.

Nigel Lythgoe may be a British guy with a big ego, and may be a producer of American Idol, but that’s where the similarities to Simon Cowell end. It looks like he saw Cowell’s success on “Idol” and figured “Hey, he was a random British guy nobody had heard of, and now he’s a superstar who makes out with Paula Abdul on camera. Why not me?”

Here’s the answer: Simon is generally caustic, sometimes funny, and usually right. Lythgoe is just cranky.

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And he’s the most memorable of the judges — in fact, he’s the only memorable judge. The fact that he’s up there with his wife and another guy who never says anything of interest shows that Lythgoe really did think he could just surround himself with anyone and make himself a star. Uh, no.

Moreover, when you can watch for 20 minutes and say, “Wow, this show could really use a Ryan Seacrest-type,” you know it has problems. Seacrest has his detractors and is easy to make fun of, but somehow he makes each "Idol" episode seem like the most dramatic, important period in the history of television. “You control their fate!” he says every week. “If your favorite gets voted off, it’s your fault!” It’s like being nagged constantly to take out the trash, but at least he’s enthusiastic about it.

Lauren Sanchez from "So You Think You Can Dance" reads her lines like she’s auditioning for voice-mail system voice-overs. Particularly in the first episode, she had a hard time conveying any excitement at all, and viewers who tuned in with great expectations may have had too hard a time staying awake to come back.

The stakes have to be big enough to be interesting. Both “Idol” and “Dance” have prize money involved, but so do “The Price is Right” and “Sale of the Century,” and neither of those have spots in prime-time. The cash isn’t enough to be interesting, it’s what else is on the line that keeps people tuning in.

The appeal of “Idol” is that everyone knows what the winner gets, and it’s not just a million-dollar record deal. Whoever wins has a legitimate chance at a long, productive career in music. By winning, they have demonstrated the ability to impress a large group of people who have an interest in pop music and the money to buy music.

It’s not just a one-year prize — there’s a real chance you’ll see the winners on the musical scene forever and ever, which means that if you really hate one of the candidates, spend a lot of time voting for others to ensure the next two decades won’t be filled with Mikalah Gordon music videos. Moreover, the show has been good at discovering people who might have otherwise slipped through the cracks — not too many music talent scouts find their way to Checotah, Oklahoma, even to see people like Carrie Underwood.

What does the winner get on “Dance?” $100,000, an apartment and … what? Are we going to be seeing the winner on Broadway, or on the Fox Christmas special? Maybe, but that doesn’t have the cachet of turning on the radio and hearing a former "Idol" champion sing.

People who spend hours voting for their “Idol” favorites are likely to buy their albums, see the concerts, and otherwise put their money where their votes are. Odds are good that after the “Dance” winner is crowned, we’ll never hear from them again. Winning a year in a nice apartment and enough money to buy a few bagels in Manhattan isn’t the same kind of life-changing event as surviving four months of Simon Cowell’s attacks.

What are the judges looking for?And what are the “Dance” judges looking for? Don’t ask ... even they don’t seem to know. The dancers making it to Hollywood are a hodgepodge of people with a number of different strengths and weaknesses.

At least we know “Idol” is looking for a pop star. It doesn’t always get it — heck, it doesn’t usually get it, since Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino and Carrie Underwood fit better into other musical genres than they do pop — but at least the goal of a singer with mass appeal is obvious. That only makes sense, since the show’s producers are also involved in the winner’s musical careers, it behooves them to find candidates that will get as much viewer attention as possible.

Moreover, there are benchmarks to compare the contestants to on “Idol” — everyone in the viewing audience has their favorite musical acts, and can’t help comparing the current hopefuls to those who have already made it. It’s hard to do the same with dancers, since it’s harder for the average viewer to tell what a great professional dancer should look like.

Ironically, the show is now trumpeting Paula Abdul’s presence, since the “Idol” judge will be giving out choreography tips to random people over the course of the next few weeks. Maybe she can start by sitting the producers down and explaining how “So You Think You Can Dance” should probably be called “So You Think You Can Make This Mediocrity a Hit.”

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.