By QUEENIE BYARS
As communicators, we occasionally are reminded that art imitates life. But seldom does the lesson ring so true as with the connection between diversity and the ratings success of “Dancing with the Stars” (DWTS). Entering its 14th season, ABC’s hit variety show features a combination of dancing, storytelling and diversity — a Disney Company trait that harkens back to the early days of founders Walt and Roy Disney.
DWTS attracts viewers from across the spectrum of television audience demographics, from old to young, wealthy to the economically challenged, and college educated to high school dropouts. In an era of poorly themed reality shows, DWTS takes the high road, entertaining us with compelling storylines of celebrities and everyday people who risk it all as amateurs on the dance floor. Partnered with professional dance coaches, they compete in the most public way, before perfection-seeking judges Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman and Burno Tonioli, and 13 million viewers who also get to vote.
From the waltz to the rumba the ballroom provides the stage for drama. The costumes are glitzy, music flawless, the choreography breathtaking and tailored to each dancer’s personality. How the dancers perform from show to show, and which team is eliminated, provides cliff-hanging moments before co-hosts announce the weekly survivors. Controversial results form the agenda-setting topic around water coolers the morning after each show.
But the true magic of DWTS revolves around the unique collection of dancers competing each season. The dancers are as diverse as the loyal audience that watches and supports them. Season one featured a singer, an actress, a super model, a reality TV star and aging former heavyweight boxer, Evander Holyfield. Season two featured a television journalist, a female wrestler, a rapper and NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.
More dancers and winners were added each season in the likes of Emmitt Smith, Hélio Castroneves, Kristi Yamaguchi, Brooke Burke, Shawn Johnson, Donny Osmond, Nicole Scherzinger, Jennifer Gray, Hines Ward and Iraq War veteran J.R. Martinez. The growing list of cast members expands DTWS’ embrace of diversity by age, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, physical disability and occupation. As the audience watches, the broadening category of contestants demonstrates the reflective power of television to mirror who we are along with the strength of our collective diversity.
And, as much as we think of DTWS as solely an American phenomenon, similar television shows are now licensed in more than 35 countries around the world from Albania to Vietnam. Taped live in Hollywood, the new season in the United States kicks off March 19, 2012. In short, today’s global audience is fascinated with diversity, and professional communicators would do well to follow in the footsteps of “Dancing with the Stars.”
Queenie Byars is an assistant professor and diversity coordinator in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She served 20 years as an Air Force public affairs officer, including two tours in the Pentagon.
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