Ryan Seacrest Is No. 1 on THR's Reality Power List
Just how important is Dancing With the Stars? According to USA Today, President Obama began his March 22 Libya speech at 7:30 p.m. to avoid challenging DWTS, TV’s third-most watched show, and ended two minutes before the terpsichorean smash began. Last spring was its biggest season ever, making it the first show in five years to beat American Idol head-to-head.
The key is the obsessive perfectionism of Vicki Dummer and John Saade. Dummer once ran a modern dance company and funded nonballroom dancers at the National Endowment for the Arts. Now she oversees shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. “Washington was a one-industry town, and this is a one-industry town,” she says. Starting out on such series as 8 Simple Rules and The Drew Carey Show helped, too. “Working in scripted comedy, you really got to know what the storytelling process was, and that’s what’s most applicable to reality.”
Saade helped launch shows from Jimmy Kimmel and Bill Maher, along with Billy Crystal’s Oscar-hosting highlights, but what makes him legendary are such shows as Dancing, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Lots of Hollywood execs exude an it’s-all-good attitude; Saade nurtures a gnawing worry that everything could be better, if only he heeded the audience more hyper-attentively. “There’s a ton of editing that goes into it, but honestly, reality depends on the decisions of the participants,” he says. “The best reality shows set up a game board — whether it’s Millionaire or The Bachelor or Dancing or even Wipeout — that allows them to make all the decisions they’re going to make. It’s the producer’s job to weave a story out of that.”
But the story can’t come from the top. “Audiences are partners in these shows now, and they smell too much manipulation, too much heavy-handed producer machinations,” he continues. Saade was initially reluctant to use the title Dancing With the Stars because he fretted that it “hit it so hard on the head that it may be a turnoff.” But he went with it because it was audience-pleasingly clear. Saade also stresses the need not to overproduce. “Honestly, you don’t ever know what’s going to happen once the season starts, and just like a great season in the NBA or NFL: It completely depends on story lines that no one could anticipate. Marty Hilton, The Bachelor producer, always says, ‘Trust the cast.’ ” And the audience, which Saade and Dummer monitor via Twitter, social media and, obviously, ratings. “You listen to the chatter in the halls, too,” Dummer says. “You get a great sense of the barometric pressure.”
“Audiences are partners in these shows now, and they smell too much manipulation, too much heavy-handed producer machination.” — John Saade
Saade first got a sense of Dancing’s barometer when he saw Joey McIntyre walk onto the floor during the first season in 2005. “On the very, very first dance of Dancing With the Stars, we knew it was absurd and it was ridiculous, and there was enough internal tension to make it seem like, ‘What is this gonna be?’ But just the way the studio responded, and the immediate e-mails from the East Coast — it felt like real show business.”
Dummer’s Spidey sense first tingled on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. “For me, it was the pilot taping, when we got our first family on, the emotion in the booth. We were just feeling like: ‘Omigod, this is a show! We really actually changed someone’s life.’ ”
Sometimes people don’t want to change their lives, though, and the ABC reality duo face a challenge with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which is as unpopular with school officials as it is popular with Emmy voters. This year, Oliver wants to make the menu in Los Angeles schools healthier, but recalcitrant district officials apparently were not impressed when he filled a school bus with 57 tons of white sand to demonstrate how much sugar kids ingest each week in flavored milk from school lunches.
Despite such bumps on the road, the Dummer/Saade reality fiefdom seems to be working for ABC: Entertainment Group president Paul Lee recently eliminated the position of scripted executive vp Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, so that the scripted side reports directly to him, as Saade and Dummer do.
Reality TV involves risks for all concerned, but sometimes it specializes in sadism, which Saade and Dummer shy away from. What goes too far? “Shows that are intentionally destructive, that are emotionally destructive, mean-spirited,” Saade says. “We have no problem with adversity. But we let people at least be able to come out the other side. When people get thrown in the mud, we want them to come out smiling.”