As “Dancing With the Stars” moves from ABC to Disney+ on Monday, viewers will notice several major changes to the competition series as it makes a historic switch to streaming for Season 31 — most notably, there will be a lot more show than they’ re used to.
That’s because Disney+ is commercial-free, which means producers have to fill all two hours without any time-outs.
“Job one, the first thing, is that there are no longer ad breaks,” says executive producer Conrad Green. “And a lot of other decisions spun out from that. We’ve got up to two hours on the nose to fill, rather than a commercial version of two hours. And that’s almost a third more material that you’ve got to find for the show.”
The two-hour telecast on ABC actually consists of 43 minutes of content each hour, or 86 minutes all together. The Disney+ episodes will, at least initially, clock in at a full 120 minutes. Green says that won’t be a problem at first, as this season’s “DWTS” will have more contestants than usual to follow — 16 in total (it’s only had that many celebrity dancers one other time, in fall 2009).
“What we’re going to do is use what would have been traditional ad breaks as a way to create more programming and to further engage our audience,” says Michael Paull, president, direct to consumer, Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution. “So it’s a pretty exciting task for the team, because it’s a very different format than what it had been historically. And I think people are going to be really excited by some of the ideas that they came up with to complete the story on the shows.”
But adding more content to the show is only part of the challenge. Green and his team also had to figure out how to reset the stage between performances without the pauses that come during commercials. Live TV producers usually depend on those breaks to not only prep for the next act, but to also take a breath.
“We’ve lost 34 minutes of reset time,” he says. “So those are our big challenges this season, how do we fill that [extra] time editorially, and secondly, how do we deal with losing those minutes that we used to use for reset?”
With no breaks, it will be up to new co-host Alfonso Ribeiro to fill that time while producers are scrambling to set up the next performance. Ribeiro will be stationed in the “Dancing With the Stars” skybox, where contestants gather when they’re not on the dance floor. After host Tyra Banks sends the celebrities and dancers back to the skybox, Ribeiro will take over and interview them about their performances and anything else that had transpired over the past week.
The “DWTS” skybox, which was a staple for the show through most of its run, had been eliminated in recent seasons, but Green believes it will be a critical part of the Disney+ transition.
“We definitely needed to bring back an area of the set so that we can clear the stage and actually move stuff around,” Green says. “So we brought back the skybox, and that meant bringing in a co-host as well. Alfonso is such a great addition to the team. He’s a former champion on the show, but he’s really passionate about it. He’s friends with a lot of the dancers, he really understands what makes the show tick and he brings humor to it and genuine interest in the celebrities and their journeys.”
The cast this time around includes actor Joseph Baena, actor Selma Blair, comedian Wayne Brady, weather anchor Sam Champion, Charli D’Amelio and Heidi D’Amelio (“The D’Amelio Show”), country star Jessie James Decker, TV star Trevor Donovan, Daniel Durant (“CODA”), Teresa Giudice (“The Real Housewives of New Jersey”), Vinny Guadagnino (“Jersey Shore”), Charlie’s Angels” star Cheryl Ladd, Jason Lewis (“Sex and the City”) , drag queen star Shangela, singer Jordin Sparks and Gabby Windey (“The Bachelorette”).
As the weeks go by and contestants are eliminated, Green says he’ll have to find other elements to fill the time. Pre-taped packages may be a part of that, but he has other live ideas as well.
“As the show progresses through the season and we have fewer people in it, we can let the show breathe in different ways,” he says. “We’re bringing our [supporting dance] troupe back and some of those transition walkovers will be putting the troupe in there to do little reprises of dances. And the reason for that is just to try and break up the flow a little bit. As the show progresses, and we have a bit more time in the show, we might get [judge] Len [Goodman] to do some little master classes in between dances where he points to a dance that’s being repeated a lot in a given episode, and he’ll show what he’s looking for and the details of people dancing in front of him.
“And then obviously in the later shows, we’re able to bring back some of the elements that we haven’t been doing in recent seasons because of COVID,” Green added. “So things like team dances, and potentially a dance marathon, group dances, things like that. So, we’re comfortable we can sort of break up the flow of those two hours.”
Meanwhile, Green says he’ll no longer have to watch the clock like he once did. If a “DWTS” episode goes long by a few minutes, or ends early, it won’t matter.
“We don’t want to go over two hours because I think two hours is a lot of TV to watch,” Green says. “So we’re trying to make that our top limit. I think that’ll be quite tight and quite fast in the early episodes, certainly the first episode. But after that there will be more time and we can drop down to 10 minutes, 15 minutes under if we need to. As the show develops across the season, we can let it breathe a little bit more. We don’t have to be quite as stressed about rushing judges in their comments or rushing Alfonso and his chats backstage.
“For someone who has had the discipline of always having to hit that on the nose and always doing it, it’s a real luxury,” he adds. “That’s the flip side of losing your ad breaks, is that you have a little bit of flexibility about how long the show has to be.”
“DWTS” will continue to maintain a five-second delay in the event that something inappropriate happens or is said on camera. That’s not because of the FCC — unlike broadcast, streaming doesn’t have government-mandated content regulations — but because of Disney’s standards and practices.
“We’re effectively operating under the same broadcast standard protocols that we did when we were on air,” Green says. “We want to be a family show, a show that everyone feels watching comfortable. So we don’t really want to change any of that in terms of tone and feel of the show just because we don’t have that the same regulatory framework. We’re basically operating with our broadcast standards team as before.”
Adds Paull: “’Dancing With the Stars’ is a very established brand. We want to make sure that we honor that brand.”
Also new this year, thanks to streaming: “Dancing With the Stars” will be available to watch live nationwide at the same time on Disney+ (8 pm ET, 5 pm PT). That means the entire country (and Canada) will be able to vote simultaneously on their favorite dancers and celebrities for the first time. (In recent years, the “DWTS” shrunk to one night on ABC, with an elimination at the end of the show, only folks watching live in the Eastern and Central time zones were able to vote.)
“There’s always been a rather gummy process of voting because of the time zones in the US,” Green says. “That everyone can watch across the country, and everyone can vote across the country at the same time, it’s so fresh and simple. Sometimes it’s the logic that streamers and more modern technologies have bought to the process. You can’t really do this on a broadcast network, where all across the country different affiliates have different. It’s more of a locked in process. As soon as you go on the streamer, I think the audience is much more familiar with show dropping at a certain time. And if you’re on the West Coast, that’s a different time than if you’re on the East Coast.”
There have been plenty of series that have made the leap from broadcast to streaming — as a matter of fact, NBC’s daytime soap opera “Days of Our Lives” just made the leap to Peacock last week. But there’s perhaps never been as ambitious of a shift as “Dancing With the Stars,” a live show with multiple performances and an interactive audience component.
“It definitely took me a bit by surprise,” says Valerie Bruce, the head of BBC Studios’ LA Productions, of Disney’s decision to shift the show to streaming. “But I feel so fortunate that we’re going to be the first live show on Disney+.”
In bringing back a co-host (Banks had emceed solo since joining the show in fall 2020), adding more contestants and filling more production time, that clearly requires more of a budget this season. “I would say that Disney+ is providing us with sufficient resources to produce the level of show that they want and is going to be of the same caliber that you’ve seen before,” Bruce says. “In some areas, enhanced.”
“Dancing With the Stars” is a global franchise that’s produced in more than 60 territories, some of which are also non-commercial. (That includes the originator of the format, the UK’s “Strictly Come Dancing,” which runs without ads on the BBC.) But this is still a huge adjustment for the US team who have been producer the show for a broadcast network since it audience launched here in 2005.
Green was the original showrunner for “DWTS” back then, and continued with the show through Season 18 in 2014. But, he says, “the challenge of bringing a show I love dearly over to a streamer and trying to really make that work” convinced him to return for Season 31.
“You’re going where the audience is, and trying to bring that sense of live excitement to a streamer,” he says. “The idea of coming back to it and being able to try and manage this transition was just too much to turn down.”
Green credits Disney+ for handling most of the technical challenges of moving the show to streaming while his team could focus on the content.
“I can’t pretend I understand all the details or every bit of the technical elements of how this is brought through,” Green says. “But we’ve got people on the team who really do understand that and I think I’m confident that we have this mapped out. We’ve tried to be super rigorous about it and how everything works and the testing we’re doing. Bear in mind a lot of these pathways have been effectively done before with live transmission. A lot of what we’re doing is known stuff. But yes, it’s always a little bit nerve wracking until you get that first show on air and everything works.”
Says Paull: “The internet was not built for the live streaming of video. Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of experience doing [live TV] with ESPN+, with Star+, with Hulu. Members of our team know how to operate a streaming service in a live environment. There are all sorts of things that we deal with on the technology side to make sure that the experience is consistent, the picture quality is great.”
Next season, Green and his team may have to adjust their plans again, as Disney+ introduces an advertiser-supported tier in December. At that point, the live “DWTS” will have to return to ad breaks — yet also include content in those breaks for viewers who subscribe to Disney+’s ad-free tier.
“We’ll need to formulate a programming strategy for how this will work in both the premium and the basic tiers,” Paull confirms. Adds Green: “Maybe we’ll show some of the behind-the-scenes work. Maybe there will be extra material put in those gaps. I think that’s probably more of a conversation for next season.”
Beyond “DWTS,” Paull says there’s no other upcoming live programming on Disney+ just yet — but he’s bullish on the concept.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity to differentiate the Disney+ experience using live programming,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of content out there that would afford itself really well. And while this is the first live TV series we’re doing on the platform, we think we’re going to learn a lot from this experience. We also have a bunch of ideas in the pipeline. So hopefully, you’ll see more to come.”