“American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” are the undeniable titans when it comes to television ratings. The two top talent contests beat out every drama, sitcom and reality TV effort that dares to share their time slots, so it’s safe to say the song and dance shows each stand as the other’s only real rival.
So, in a two-way battle of the best, is it “Idol” or “Dancing” that has the advantage? Consider the competition.
Judging the judges
Talent comes and goes, so ultimately it’s up to the familiar faces that return each season to entertain viewers during the inevitable lulls. At least they should be familiar faces — enter the first strike against “American Idol.”
When something works — say, for instance, a trio of judges with a proven mix of dependable chemistry, quality commentary and amusing quirks — don’t mess with it. Of course, that advice comes two seasons too late for “Idol,” which traded its winning triumvirate of veteran panelists for more of a random, revolving-door approach.
Kara DioGuardi in. Paula Abdul out. Ellen DeGeneres in. Simon Cowell on his way out. Randy Jackson? Hanging in there, dawg. What to expect next season? No one knows.
Not that it matters. When it comes to judging the judges, “Dancing With the Stars” waltzes away with an easy win.
Unlike the bloated “Idol” panel, where saccharine sentimentality and overly cruel criticisms join the occasional accurate analysis or at least a random “I’m feeling you,” the “Dancing” regulars make the evaluations worth watching. It’s not that nitpicking and dry assessments don’t come into play, but when they do, they’re coupled with heavy doses of humor.
Even head judge Len Goodman, otherwise known as “Dancing’s” elder statesman and obligatory grumpy Brit, takes a tongue-in-cheek approach in between bouts of by-the-book reviews — as long as he doesn’t catch anyone “hipping and hopping” in the ballroom.
Then there’s Bruno Tonioli, the alliteration-loving choreographer who gesticulates wildly before declaring, “The samba needs a sexy slut!”
And while Carrie Ann Inaba can’t quite measure up to her over-the-top counterparts, she’s a reasonable fit for a panel that couldn’t comfortably accommodate one more huge personality.
The men behind the microphones
Of course, judges aren’t the only familiar faces on “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars.” Each show boasts its own signature emcee fully capable of navigating the rocky road of live television.
For “Idol,” it’s Ryan Seacrest, the svelte and rigidly groomed (seriously, find a single hair out of place on that man’s head) host in charge of introducing the talent, chatting with the panel and at times, lessening the low blows from the judges.
“Dancing” has Tom Bergeron, who pairs similar duties with his own brand of casual and sometimes corny charm.
Who comes out on top? Tough call.
Bergeron contends with sidekicks of questionable quality (first Samantha Harris and now Brooke Burke), though Seacrest once had his own Brian Dunkleman to bear.
Seacrest endures increasing awkward interactions with Cowell, but in the interest of fairness, he usually instigates them, too.
Bergeron never misses a beat. When Marie Osmond hit the floor like a sack of potatoes in season five, he balanced concern and a sense of calm with the perfect throw-it-to-commercial gesture. Nice.
Seacrest impresses just by staying awake. In addition to “Idol,” he hosts two radio shows, another television show and pulls numerous production duties.
Advantage: It’s a draw.
Top talent vs. too talented
The audition process on “American Idol” allows the judges to select a gifted group of aspiring singers who, with a little more training and some makeover magic, are ready to battle it out with their almost-equally talented peers. Well, a current season full of warbling contestants notwithstanding, it often works that way.
When it comes to the “Dancing With the Stars” selection method, it’s about which celebrities, or reasonable facsimiles, are willing to show what they can or can’t do on the dance floor. With no particular age range or fitness level preferred, the challenge is simply to see how well professional partners can whip non-dancing stars into ballroom babies — at least in theory.
The playing field isn’t exactly level. “Idol” hopefuls are meant to come to the competition as better-than-average singers. The “Dancing” stars? Obviously, they pack various performance experiences, but their dance cards should be empty. All too often, they’re not.
Ringers have been the one downside of “Dancing” since its early days. Musical artists trained to performing tightly choreographed routines (such as past contestants Sabrina Bryan and Mel B, or this season’s breakout dancing queen, Nicole Scherzinger), figure skaters familiar with oh-so-ballroom-like maneuvers on the ice (think Kristi Yamaguchi or Evan Lysacek), and stars who spent much of their early days in dance class (remember Melissa Rycroft?) have an decidedly unfair lead.
If one person can sing and two people can dance, then how much better would it be if everybody just hopped up on stage to sing or dance together?
Unfortunately both “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” have answered that question time and time again, and the answer continues to be “not at all better.” The weakest performers rule and ruin group routines.
On “Idol,” it doesn’t matter who masters the big glory note if one loudmouth belts way out of key.
On “Dancing,” the perfect promenade goes unnoticed when the next closest dancer is several steps behind.
Advantage: None. Really. Please just make it stop.
Winners and losers
Whether it’s a recording contract or a mirror ball trophy, in the end, somebody walks about with the top honor. It’s a possible life-changer for one “American Idol” contestant. The most a “Dancing” star can hope for is a slight career boost or a maybe few more minutes in the limelight for a lesser-known participant.
But the shows aren’t just about winners. When viewer votes lead to an ouster on “Idol,” as they must eventually for Tim Urban, that’s likely the end of a dream. Bummer.
Kicking a competitor off “Dancing” is rarely a sad event. In fact, it’s sort of fun. There’s no need to worry about what will become of Buzz Aldrin when his “Dancing” days are over — he’ll just go back to being Buzz Aldrin. There might be the so-long sniffles, but no one really gets hurt, except for the occasional torn this or pulled that.
So, based on a whole lot of opinion and absolutely no science, “Dancing With the Stars” is the clear winner. Not surprising, really, as the ballroom romp recently proved it has the talent show hooks, as well as enough glitz, spray tan and cheesy tabloid appeal (Hey, got to keep that Kate Gosselin around for something!) to topple the previously impossible-to-topple “Idol” from its ratings peak. For now.
Ree Hines is obviously blinded by her Len Goodman love. Follow her on Twitter and give her what for at twitter.com/ReeHines.