The new fall TV season kicked off last night, and in recent years the first to kick off on broadcast TV was the venerable reality competition series DANCING WITH THE STARS. A hokey but immensely popular chance for B list and below “celebrities” to team with professional dancers and show off their moves, for 30 seasons (until recently with a spring outing as well as its usual September-Thanksgiving arc) it was appointment television for a primarily older female audience and an ideal counterprogramming to Monday Night Football on ESPN and the younger-skewing THE VOICE on NBC.
But DWTS’ audience has diminished greatly of late, with last season seeing a more than 50% decline from its audience of five years ago, and its season finale attracting a mere 5.46 million viewers, roughly a third of where it was when I was saddled with the prospect of trying to get people to watch reruns of it. When I joined Game Show Network a decade ago, management had made what they considered to be a “statement” by paying what was at the time a record acquisition price for them to air the show’s first five years, despite the fact that their competitors had never seriously considered paying one red cent for them. And as someone who had seen a network called FOX REALITY, with a library of even more successful competition series at its disposal, become a dismal failure and ultimately a right-off, I knew damn well trying to get anyone to watch a show where the whole reason one wants to watch is to see who wins, and a rerun of a popular show that builds to a climactic championship is the definition of “who cares” in reruns. Unsurprisingly, after a year of futile scheduling and stunting attempts, and after establishing some actual traction with newer shows and more successful acquisitions, we were allowed to remove the reruns from the schedule entirely, and once doing so set the network up for the most-viewed year in its two-decade history in 2013.
These days, that library now sits exclusively with Disney, and they’re still looking to find ways to make a compromised show successful. One of the most prevalent arguments among many flailing apologists is that in the days of social media, a live competition show potentially loses relevance on the West Coast if the unavoidable sniping of East Coast tweeters allows the winners to be revealed before the show airs. Despite the age of its core audience, enough of them were allegedly aware enough of social media to acknowledge this. So with the advent of Disney Plus, the opportunity finally arose for DWTS to be aired live coast-to-coast (and anywhere else the service is available). Last night, the 2022-23 fall season kicked off with Season 31 of the show airing on a streaming service, the first regualarly scheduled live original entertainment series to air on a SVOD service.
For Disney, this is as crucial a crucible for proving it’s possible to bring people more frequently to a platform that is looking to monetize engagement, and later this fall, advertising, as much as subscriptions. Indeed, the challenge that lies ahead for them, let alone its top competitors such as Netflix, is proving there’s a substantial enough audience in the moment to sell those looking for more immediate sales results to support AVOD. SVOD has relied upon a Costco-like model for monetization, one where you pay for the opportunity to possibly buy something, which lessens the urgency to have someone actually make a purchase to sustain its business model. But in a ever-competitive landscape where subscription fatigue is arguably hitting its ceiling, and where Disney has been castigated for a series of recent price hikes for all but its most inclusive bundles, there is an internal urgency to find new sources of incremental revenue and, more importantly, opportunties to keep people within its walled garden to watch more library content and, of course, see a few ads in the process.
In DANCING, Disney Plus is betting that viewers who still love the show will find their way to an internet-enabled device and pay for the chance to watch live. The exceptionally strong likeilhood is that far fewer than 5,46 million people will be watching, and even if that is the case as Disney chooses not to publicly release any information about actual viewership, and third parties like Nielsen continue to be unable to accurately measure it, for the foreseeable future we will not likely know exactly how much further off the cliff from their heyday their reportable viewership will fall.
What will be scrutinized will be how many incremental subscriptions actually arise from this move, what level of engagement with social media occurs now that the spectre of sniping is moot, and whether people stick around to watch other Disney Plus content. For West Coast viewers, particularly as darker and cooler weather approaches, the possibility of seeing an MCU original at 6:30 pm is certainly something their management would love. And as for the library, while the older hours’ results may still not be appealing, their performances are. Here’s what turns up as an option for autoplay as soon as one finishes watching the first episode of the new season: