Check Kat Gotsick’s DWTS Power Rankings Defined column if you need help understanding these choices. See also: Elite Athlete Predictions; Comedians & Goofballs Predictions; Reality Star Predictions; Nostaglic Icon Predictions; Disney Stars Predictions; Wild Card Predictions; Pop Stars Predictions; Physically Challenged Predictions; Beautiful People Predictions; Quirky Delightful C-Lister Predictions; Pop Star Predictions
“Dancing with the Stars” announces its Season 16 contestants on February 26. For some, this is a fascinating exercise in Nate Silver-izing the contestant selections. I love doing this because it helps me rationalize watching DWTS into an intellectual exercise. Join me on this just-barely statistically relevant odyssey, won’t you?
Understanding the power rankings requires me to make some assumptions about what the producers want to put onscreen this season. If I’m a producer on DWTS, I’ve got Tiers of Desire in each of the eleven categories (more on the categories a little later). First, a breakdown on those tiers.
- The White Whale – requires a relentless pursuit and extraordinary incentives to book (think Pamela Anderson).
- The Blue Whale – does not require extra incentives to book but is absolutely at the top of the list in their category, either because of their real world performance or potential entertainment value. This is often a case of great timing–for instance, a retiring athlete who is looking to extend their relevance and transition to life after sport. Think Shawn Johnson. 1
- The Choices that Make Sense Based on Predictive Criteria – enough said. Watch for columns that outline the individual predictive criteria for each category.
- The Ready-for-Reality TV Choices – people who are, subjectively in my mind, predisposed to say yes to Reality TV for whatever reason. For instance, they thought they would do better in the execution of their chosen careers but need to pivot to reality TV in order to stay relevant. These people would probably also make for good watching. Think Drew Lachey.
- The Courageous Choice I Bet They Wouldn’t Regret – these are people that probably come up in casting meetings and there’s always a 60-40 split in one direction or the other about whether to pursue them. Think Chaz Bono.
- The Plan B / Deep Cuts – these are the people that fall to the bottom of the priority list when it’s time to cast. The producers believe there will be a better time to pursue them in the future (think Alex Morgan) or because even though they’re intriguing, they’ll never be the best choice if their first choices work out (think Melissa Rycroft).
WHAT CATEGORIES OF “STARS” ARE THEY LOOKING FOR?
DWTS makes its bones on showing us a range of “stars” that fall into eleven distinct categories. Of the 162 contestants that have showed up on DWTS in fourteen seasons (Season 15 was All Stars), here is the breakdown with sample constituents: 2
|Emmitt Smith, Apolo Ohno, Helio Castroneves, Floyd Mayweather|
|Wayne Newton, Donny Osmond, Florence Henderson, Urkel|
|William Levy, Denise Richards, Rachel Hunter, Shandi Finnessey|
|Joey Fatone, Michael Bolton, Nicole Sherzinger, Mel B|
|Mark Cuban, Rocco DiSpirito, Mark Dacascos, Leeza Gibbons|
|Penn Jillette, Jeffrey Ross, Margaret Cho, Kenny Mayne|
|Lisa Rinna, Ricki Lake, John O’Hurley, David Hasselhoff|
|Holly Madison, Melissa Rycroft, Kim/Rob Kardashian, Audrina Patridge|
|People We Hate||
|Kate Gosselin, Nancy Grace, Bristol Palin, Tucker Carlson|
|Sabrina Bryan, Kyle Massey, Roshon Fegan|
|Heather Mills, Marlee Matlin, JR Martinez|
When I put myself in the producers’ shoes, I can make some educated guesses as to what I’m looking for in the future based on the results of the past.
Elite Athletes are plentiful and willing, reliably popular and consistently competent. 3 Olympians are especially easy to acquire as there isn’t a preponderance of jobs out there that are both well-paying and competition-based once an Olympian is no longer an Olympian.
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: I’ve probably got a ton of interested elite athletes in my funnel (especially in light of the recent London Olympics), more than I can use. These guys are the foundation of my Season 16 cast, but I would prefer to have the White Whales on my list. And I will never get them (my column on Elite Athlete Power Rankings will flesh this out).
Nostalgic Icons are also probably plentiful and willing and may have more entertainment value than normal, but they are far less reliably competent than Elite Athletes. Only two Nostalgic Icons have ever won a Mirror Ball (Osmond, Jennifer Grey).
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: This category is a great opportunity to try and get an Oscar Winner. 4 But if there’s an actually decent dancer in the bunch, they’re at the top of my list.
Beautiful People break down into a couple very clear sub-categories:
- Foreign and Domestic. The FBPs have turned out to be some of the most talented dancers and most loveable to the DWTS (middle-aged soccer mom) demographic (Gilles Marini, Cristian de la Fuenta). Interestingly, the DBP’s have generally been less funny, charming, interesting, or loveable than other contestants. They’re just preternaturally beautiful (think Lucci, Anderson, Shannon Elizabeth).
- Supermodels and Non-Supermodels. Supermodels virtually always do TERRIBLE dancing-wise. I’m not sure why they keep casting them.
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: I’m looking for whoever is hot in pop culture abroad but still speaks excellent English. I’m also looking for a domestic beautiful person (a) who has anything close to a charming personality; or (b) can actually dance. I won’t choose a beautiful person who doesn’t have either of those two attributes unless they are either A-Listers (Richards comes closest) or have been involved in a scandal that caught the entire nation’s attention (ditto D-Rich).
Pop Stars are extremely reliable in terms of the actual dancing 5 but are sometimes weird and inaccessible (think Macy Gray, Master P, Michael Bolton, Lil Kim).
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: My priority would be someone with a built-in fan base (often these contestants could also fit into the Nostalgic Icon category–think boy banders) who is either an exceptionally talented dancer or exceptionally hilarious.
Wild Cards are exactly what the sound like. This is where the producers’ imaginations can run wild. But I also believe that sometimes they are probably forced to choose wild cards because sometimes they just need to fill their slate. Looking back, these are likely some of their favorite choices ever and some of their most “meh” choices ever.
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: I’m actually not sure how to characterize what I would look for here except to say that I would know it when I see it. And that I would settle for it when I have to.
COMEDIANS & GOOFBALLS
Comedians & Goofballs must be some of the absolutely most fun choices to make in casting. In general, comedians are taught that if they sell something hard enough, people will buy it. When something isn’t working, your best option is to double down. Go big or go home. Mostly, these people go home. Early. Their value to the show is in entertainment value, not talent.
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: I know that whoever I choose from this category probably won’t last long so I probably am thinking of how I might be able to leverage them after they’re gone from the dance floor. Kenny Mayne’s “DanceCenter” segments are brilliant stone-faced comedy set pieces and Adam Carolla’s man-on-the-street interviews are always entertaining. My column on Comedians & Goofballs fleshes this out more.
There’s a heavy chicken vs. egg quotient in this category because DWTS has launched as many C-Listers back into relevance (O’Hurley) as it has exploited for its own gain (Hasselhoff). This category generally isn’t the worst place to find good dancers, but it is one of the better ones. 6
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: THIS is a category where a producer can build a legacy. How many people can I make America rediscover and re-fall in love with? How many careers can I re-launch? Who do I want to re-launch next? This category is my gift to myself.
Reality Stars are a horrible necessity in network TV competition survival today. For whatever reasons, they command large, weirdly faithful audiences that will help to achieve ratings. Only two Reality Stars have ever been finalists on DWTS–Rob Kardashian and Kelly Osbourn. Both were good dancers and hard workers.
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: this category would be the stone around my neck. I would delegate this to an intern. Once they gave me a list, I would look at Q Ratings, narrow the list down to the top three Q Ratings and the bottom three, and then I would give the list to my friend Pete to make the final decision. He is unbelievably reliable in choosing reality stars that people either love or love to hate. My column on Reality Stars takes a first pass without Pete’s help.
PEOPLE WE HATE
These are people who have absolutely no gray area. Americans either love or hate them irrationally. Their inclusion on the show will spark debate and make news. The more hateable they are, the better the PR. There has only ever been one Person We Hate in the finals of DWTS–Bristol Palin in a Perfect Storm of shitty dancing, trying too hard, and vaguely racist, wholly anti-Obama redneck nationalism.
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: This is another legacy builder category for a producer. I’m looking for the most gratuitously hateable people I can find and then I’m looking to humanize them. I’m looking to change a whole national conversation in a ridiculously low-risk bet (since they are rarely ever decent dancers, I won’t have to deal with any backlash for long). 7
Disney Stars are clearly chosen from a list supplied by Big Brother Disney and are almost always good-but-not-great choices. They’re likeable, non-threatening and almost always upper tier dancers. But they’re never particularly interesting or provocative and they don’t bring a big enough fan base to the table to get over the hump audience-vote wise.
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: I assume the list I’m choosing from isn’t going to include anyone interesting. I’ll look for something vaguely different or favorable (think Kyle Massey’s girth or Cody Linley’s ability to get Miley Cyrus to spectate/perform) but past that, one is likely as good as the next.
THE PHYSICALLY CHALLENGED
The Physically Challenged is a cool category. You know it has to take some seriously deep-down courage to go on national TV and complete in a physical competition when you are at a physical disadvantage (J.R. Martinez notwithstanding–that guy was buff). I think that these people are set up for success and rewarded for effort.
PRODUCER’S MINDSET: Every single person I might consider for this category is a White Whale. As long as these people are not entirely unlikable, they will be my greatest achievements. And I am DEVASTATED by the downfall of Oscar Pistorius.
- Both the blue and white whale categories have “before careful what you wish for” corollaries, where you can’t say no to booking the whale but they turn out to be either a nightmare offscreen or a train wreck onscreen. High risk / high reward choices. Think Kate Gosselin. ↩
- I categorized all these people subjectively so they’re probably a bunch of wrong ones (Mario Lopez as Nostalgic Icon? Hmmmm.) In some cases, they belonged in more than one category. In those cases, I put them in the one where I believe that they earned their invitation onto the show. ↩
- Indeed, Elite Athletes have won exactly half of the Mirror Balls (7 out of 14 seasons, not counting All Stars –Smith, Ohno, Castroneves, Johnson, Kristi Yamaguchi, Hines Ward, Donald Driver). The next best category of winner is a tie between Nostalgic Icons, Beautiful People, and Pop Stars, all only with two wins apiece. ) ↩
- Winning an Oscar would bump someone into Blue, possibly White Whale territory. Only two DWTS contestants (Tatum O’Neal and Marlee Matlin) have ever won an Oscar. ↩
- While they have only won two actual Mirror Balls, once you open up to “Finalists,” pop stars have done extremely well ↩
- Two Delightful C-Listers have ever been finalists on the show–O’Hurley and Ricki Lake. None has ever won a Mirror Ball. ↩
- Bristol P. was obviously the exception to this rule. She would have tested my resolve had I been a producer on that season. ↩