In your position, have you had to adjust expectations from wanting the best dancer to win to wanting the most popular “character” to win?
If someone who was a really poor dancer won it, I think that would be tricky. I genuinely don’t mind [who wins]. When Bristol Palin looked like she might win, I thought that could be problematic, given the quality of her dancing compared to the others. That was definitely a case of popularity kicking back on the dance ability — which I still think is valid, honestly. If tons of people are engaged with the show, we’re all winners, right? That’s all I want. All I want is people to care and get involved. I’d guess the amount of people who complain about things and probably don’t vote is pretty high.
What if Bill Engvall wins this season?
Well, the only way Bill will win this season is if a huge amount of the audience get behind him or his dancing improves quite a lot. And frankly, if that much of the audience wants him to win it, I kind of don’t care. That’s their choice. It’s the audience’s show. Take that element away from the audience, I worry that 1) it would be extraordinarily predictable, and 2) people never agree 100 percent with all the scores the judges give, so that’s gonna put them all out of touch. They’re not gonna have any way to remedy and support the show.
How long do you see Dancing With the Stars continuing?
I really don’t know. I’d love to make it for as long as ABC will want it and the public will want it. What’s interesting is we’re still the most-watched reality TV show on at the moment. The Voice has enormous marketing — it’s a very good show — and we’re head to head with it. And we’re still getting more viewers than they are. The difficulty for us is the demographic of our audience, and that’s the way we’re judged. I value every single one of our audience, but as it stands, we are always trying to attract the younger demographic. It’s a balancing act trying to satisfy multiple age groups to make this show satisfying for all. Creatively it’s difficult for a show, when you get to a 17th season, to keep it fresh while still keeping to the core of it.
So in a way, might the absence of a second hour to fill have helped the show avoid a creative rut?
Well, we open with a big performance number, we put all sorts of the 10-second bumpers in there. We’re trying to make it feel like a big, live dance party. When you get to know our other dancers, there’s such a quality to those bumpers. They’re fierce.
I’ve particularly been loving Sharna!
Oh, yeah, Sharna. Amazing. She burns a hole in the screen. The quality of those bits, they’re amazing. The theory of this whole show is, it’s got a lifespan. I do think the voting isn’t ideal. Ideally we’d be in one time zone and everyone could do it live and you could vote there and then. Or do it later that night like they do it in the UK. But we’re doing what we can with what we’ve got. It’s very difficult being against The Voice. I think a lot of people who watch that, if that wasn’t on, would probably watch us. And that is a significant chunk of our younger audience. But I think given all that, we’re kind of proud that we’ve still got the biggest audience after this many years and this many episodes. We try to make it fun and exciting and vibrant.
Has there ever been a specific endpoint in sight — 20 seasons, for example?
This isn’t Breaking Bad — it’s not like there’s a narrative. Don’t think Vince Gilligan’s working out the ending as we speak. It’s a show that I think has to evolve, and the question is trying to pitch the evolution of it in a way that we don’t lose our essence, but we keep changing and bringing in new faces. People always cringe when new people emerge, but then within a couple of seasons they warm to them. It’s important to keep that new blood coming in, keep that enthusiasm.
Can you think of any changes you’d like to put in effect for next season?
A lot of it depends on: Does the results show come back? It’s conceivable. I really don’t know. It’s an open book at the moment. The people at the network have changed, this season. And I’m sure they’ll take stock at the end of all this and review what we’re going for. What’s gonna happen to our Tuesday night — is there a slot there? Is Dancing on a Monday? Once we’ve got that brief, that will determine a lot of where we go. We get given the hours and then we work out how to fill it, which is why we have a lot of these unusual rounds, these mini rounds. A two-hour show with six people in it is very different from a two-hour show with four people in it. You’ve gotta figure out how to fill those hours in a satisfying way that doesn’t break your competitors.
‘Dancing With the Stars’ airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.