Moving Dancing With the Stars to Disney+ Just Might Work

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC

Now that titles as diverse as Thursday Night Football and A Charlie Brown Christmas call streaming platforms home, it’s rarely jaw-dropping news when a program associated with a broadcast or cable network ends up going digital. And yet, last week’s announcement that ABC’s long-running Dancing With the Stars will be cha-cha-cha-ing its way over to sibling steamer Disney+ this fall still somehow managed to make Hollywood insiders perk up. Live performance competitions have been one of the few remaining genres still considered the exclusive province of network TV — and now Disney was claiming one of the most-beloved examples of the form for its namesake subscription service.

What made the development such a stunner is that the nearly 17-year-old franchise just felt like the quintessential broadcast TV show, the kind of series that would remain on traditional telly for as long as the platform survived. While it actually has always had plenty of younger viewers, DWTS has never been particularly cool. Packed with B-level celebs and unashamed to lean into camp and corniness (as well as some suburban-friendly horniness), it’s survived for nearly two decades by embracing its status as your mom’s favorite show. It just didn’t feel like the kind of title a streamer would try to grab, à la Amazon’s sacking of Thursday football. Conversely, its Nielsen numbers have not fallen so far that it needed to be “saved” by a subscription service, the way some endangered series (from Community to Evil) have ended up moving from broadcast to streaming.

So why did Disney decide DWTS needed to cross the digital divide over to Disney+? Company execs haven’t said much, nor is anyone at ABC talking. But Kareem Daniel, head of Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution, offered a five-word hint at the end of his boilerplate quote in the press release announcing the shift. After some banalities about the “broad appeal” of the show and the popularity of its Disney theme nights, Daniel said DWTS would help D+ in its effort “to expand our demographic reach.” In other words, having already sucked up the majority of homes with kids and maxed out on Marvel-loving millennials and Gen-X Star Wars nerds, Disney is now on a mission to get older viewers — and folks in middle America who don’t go in for all those superhero shenanigans or animated movies — to finally sign up for D+. Cast in that light, DWTS suddenly looks like a perfect audience magnet, enticing a segment of the population which hasn’t been tempted by all the blockbusters on the service. It could also act as a hedge against subscriber churn, potentially a big headache for D+ given that those three-year low-cost subscriptions it offered before launch will all start expiring in November.

On a broader level, DWTS also gives Disney a chance to experiment with how live programming moves the needle on a streamer that until now has been heavily geared toward library content. Live-entertainment content could be the next frontier for streaming platforms, and we’ve been seeing some other testing around it of late. Amazon Prime Video’s recent telecast of the ACM Awards, for example, was very much designed to see how awards shows might fare on a digital platform.

There have been a handful of performance reality shows on streaming before, but they’ve all been previously recorded and haven’t allowed for audience participation. DWTS will change that: The show is expected to continue to air every week in a primetime slot, with audiences helping to determine the winner with their votes. That’s important, because it means there will be an incentive for subscribers to open up D+ at the same time every week, rather than whenever it’s convenient. A sense of urgency is something most streamers lack; a live-event series can offer that.

It also is probably not a coincidence that DWTS is moving just as D+ is preparing to offer a new lower-cost tier with ads. While it’s possible the ad-supported level won’t be in place when the first season of DWTS debuts on the platform in early fall, eventually D+ is going to want to be able to offer its advertisers the ability to sell their wares in live, can’t-miss programming in addition to on-demand shows audiences watch whenever. Brands with time-sensitive products — a new movie opening, or an automaker with a big weekend promotion — like to know consumers will see their ads within a certain timeframe.

Of course, what’s (potentially) great for D+ will almost surely be a short-term blow to ABC’s primetime ratings. Though past its peak, DWTS remains one of the network’s better performers: Its most recent season averaged 6.1 million weekly viewers and a 1.0 rating among adults under 50. That makes it a bigger audience draw than any scripted series on ABC, and one of the network’s top five shows in the key demo

Disney says it will fill the DWTS gap by simulating a couple of ESPN Monday Night Football games (and broadcasting one exclusive matchup), but that could still leave a pretty big hole in the network’s fall schedule. Right now, NBC is experiencing the pain of what happens when a popular reality show suddenly goes away: It decided to limit The Voice to one cycle each fall, putting on American Song Contest as a replacement this spring. It’s been a Nielsen disaster, with ratings falling every week it has aired (the most recent episode was seen by fewer than 1.5 million same-day viewers, one-third the audience of ABC or CBS that evening).

(On the other hand, given DWTS is not a cheap show to produce, some of the ad revenue ABC will lose will be made up for by possibly lower programming costs. It will also give the network more real estate to try out either new programming on Monday, or perhaps make room for more primetime Jeopardy! stunts, which have done very well for ABC in the past.)

Whatever the impact on ABC, it’s clear Disney is making this move because it sees DWTS as a strong asset with which to expand the subscriber base for D+. While it’s already one of the more affordable streamers out there, having DWTS on the service — combined with a price of, say $5 per month for the new ad-supported option — may help tempt a decent number of fence-sitters into finally signing up for D+.

Plus, many industry analysts believe it’s just a matter of time before Disney folds Hulu into D+, making for a simpler streaming experience and broader-based platform. DWTS — and eventually other shows from ABC — clearly fits on a streamer which also houses FX and Hulu originals. It’s even possible DWTS ends up with a bigger audience on D+ than ABC, given its broad distribution and ability to use its algorithm to connect new viewers to the show.

Of course, the move could also be a disaster. Disney’s plan is very logical and even sounds smart on paper. But that’s why this is an experiment: We don’t know if streaming audiences are suddenly going to turn up for a live weekly competition show. Yet entertainment companies can’t afford to not conduct tests like this. It’s the only way to find out what’s possible with this still-young medium. And risk has been in the Disney DNA for quite some time, from Bob Iger pulling the company’s Marvel content and movies from Netflix to, years before, rolling the dice by shifting Monday Night Football from ABC to ESPNBoth gambits paid off. And more recently, the decision to turn most of FX’s best new content into Hulu exclusives was similarly ballsy — and it hasn’t hurt the FX brand one bit.

The DWTS-to-Disney+ shift is right in line with that thinking. We’ll soon find out if this gamble pays off, too.

Moving Dancing With the Stars to Disney+ Just Might Work