Networks In a Dance-Off

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Fuse may have been on to something after all.

The music network’s Pants-Off Dance-Off show was labeled the “dumbest show on television” by TV Guide when it launched in 2004. Yet millions of viewers tuned in anyway to see everyday people take it all off while dancing to the beat of their favorite tunes.

Fast forward a few years, and now it seems every cable network is featuring some type of dance-oriented show featuring current and wanna-be hoofers looking to shake their moneymakers on television. OK, so they’re not taking their clothes off in the process, but it seems that viewers are hooked on the dance genre.

Just look at the lineup of cable shows that have either aired or set to air over the first three months of 2008 that have viewers tapping their feet or worse, clearing the living room furniture to bust a move along with their favorite on-air dance partners:

  • Last Thursday (March 27), MTV aired the finale of its popular Randy Jackson Presents: America’s Best Dance Crew. Up to that point, the show — in which rival dancers battle to see who’s got the best moves — had been averaging more than 2 million viewers since its January launch.
  • Lifetime has older folks shaking their tail feathers on TV. Its show Your Mama Don’t Dance, in which professional dancers give lessons to their often not-so-swift-footed parents, is averaging 1.2 million viewers for the women’s network.
  • Even kids are getting into the act. Nickelodeon this past weekend (March 29) debuted Dance on Sunset, giving teens and tweens even more license to learn the latest dance moves through on-air dance instruction.
  • Bravo is set to debut April 3 its ode to the dance genre, Step It Up And Dance, in which Showgirls star Elizabeth Berkley hosts a weekly competition for 12 aspiring dancers hoping to win $100,000.

Not since the 1980s, when Rosie Perez shook her groove thing on Soul Train and Deney Terrio donned tight pants and bell-bottoms for Dance Fever, have dance-oriented contents been such a mainstay on television.

In fact, despite everyone’s affinity to bop or dance to a beat at one time or another, the dance competition genre — with so many different forms, styles and disciplines that are unfamiliar to most viewers — hadn’t made much of a mark on the television reality landscape until ABC launched Dancing With the Stars in 2005.

The summer replacement series, which paired B-list celebrities and athletes with professional dancers, cleverly enticed viewers with famous feet as diverse as those attached to Marie Osmond and Evander Holyfield.

On Dancing With the Stars, the art of dance is the star rather than the celebrities themselves. But with the current batch of cable dance shows, the light shines mostly on the participants, and dancing is the hook that brings the celebrity hopefuls together.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Much like the ratings monster American Idol, the reality dance competitions are as much popularity contests as tests of skill and craftsmanship.

The behind-the-scenes stories about the effort and sweat the participating dancers put in to hone their craft is a compelling sell to many viewers who remember the cramping toes they felt during childhood ballet lessons, or the aching muscles the day after doing the Electric Slide or the Superman at cousin Joe’s wedding.

Add that interactivity factor for shows like MTV’s Dance Crew — 38 million people voted for finalists Status Quo or the JabbaWockeeZ via phone, text messaging and the Web over a seven-day period — and you have the makings of a realty hit that may dance to a very robust Nielsen ratings beat.

And the performers don’t have to take their clothes off. Although it’s not a bad ratings ploy, as Fuse will attest.

Whether all the various iterations of dance-theme reality shows waltz into a multiyear run on TV like Dancing With the Stars remains to be seen.

But for the short term, viewers seem to be willing to watch dancers with both fleet feet and two left feet cut a rug on cable.

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