Formats

“So You Think…” EPs on “creating magic” with tighter budgets and schedules

Debuting on Fox in summer 2005, So You Think You Can Dance has remained enshrined within talent competition royalty along with Disney/ABC’s American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, and NBC’s ...
July 13, 2022

Debuting on Fox in summer 2005, So You Think You Can Dance has remained enshrined within talent competition royalty along with Disney/ABC’s American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, and NBC’s The Voice and America’s Got Talent.

Yet even as it has held on alongside its similarly long-running rivals, SYTYCD has consistently struggled in the ratings in the last few years, with its per-episode viewership of approximately 2 million sitting at about a third of its big-shiny-floor competitors. Its gradual slip in viewership surely had something to do with the fact that SYTYCD was one of the last big competition series to return after its 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its return to air in May 2022, however, came with some changes.

The reduced episode order was the most notable structural difference, as was the removal of viewers at home casting their votes for their favorite dancer of the week. Instead, that duty is now relegated entirely to the studio audience for this season, which is entirely pre-taped episodes.

Personnel-wise, co-creator and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe is absent from the judging panel for the first time, and Rosie Seitchik joined the team behind the camera, as the series’ new showrunner. Seitchik previously logged lengthy runs on Idol, AGT and The Masked Singer, but was an outsider to what her fellow EP Jeff Thacker — who has been with the show since its first episode — identifies as the show’s close-knit production team, which has retained much of its key creative personnel for years.

That consistency has been reflected in the nature of the format itself. It’s largely eschewed some of the key elements that bolster its consistently better-rated rivals: celebrity, A-list and otherwise; novelty/gimmickry, from The Voice‘s spinning chairs to The Masked Singer‘s costumes; and, arguably, the possibility of participants humiliating themselves, a definite feature-not-bug of format trendsetter Idol.

While early seasons of SYTYCD did sometimes spotlight the odd hapless and hopelessly untalented auditionee, the show has long since dispensed with audience-baiting cruelty. Instead, the series is heavy on the uplift, with pre-taped packages that relate the variously heart-tugging personal journeys of its 17-to-30-year-old competitors, and a format designed to celebrate excellence rather than foreground spectacle.

Given the show’s consistently tenuous prospects for renewal in the few years leading up to the pandemic, it would be reasonable to suspect that the green light for the 2022 season might have come with some pressure to juice up the format. But as Seitchik and Thacker attested to Realscreen — in an interview conducted shortly after they had wrapped the “all-star” episode that returns the show from its midseason break on Wednesday (July 13) — continuity rather than change seems to have been the byword of So You Think You Can Dance season 17, even as logistical constraints mandated certain alterations.

In the interview below, the duo paint an optimistic but realistic picture of not only their own series, but also of the talent competition format itself in an uncertain TV climate of tightening budgets, cord-cutting and ever-more thinly dispersed viewer attention, which has made long-running series more the exception than the norm.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

SYTYCD was one of the last of the big singing/dancing competition shows to return since the 2019 shutdown. What were some of the discussions that were being had with the network about starting the show up again?

Rosie Seitchik: I think it felt like a no-brainer to the network and the production companies to bring back such a beloved brand. But after a couple of years off the air, it was a priority to bring it back refreshed and reimagined to a degree while also maintaining the integrity of such a beloved franchise. We needed to give the longtime viewers and devotees the assurance that the show they know and love and had missed was coming back as the same show at its core, but with enough refreshed elements that it felt new. And then, of course, everybody’s noticed it needed to come back somewhat condensed as a season as well. So how we could achieve all the core elements of the format in a shorter season was one of the key discussions about how to bring it back.

What kind of balance were you looking to strike between continuity and change with the new season?

Jeff Thacker: For me, I think the fear was, how much of this do you want to change? Because the reason that we’ve sustained so long is because the show is solid as it is. It works as it is. So when we were coming back, I thought, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. But on the other hand, we need to progress and move forward. So I was very protective about what we could do, but I’ve always had open eyes and open ears and an open mind, and anything that doesn’t destroy it, let’s give it a try.

This is the first time for me working with Rosie on a show she was coming in to. The other EPs prior to this had been part of the show [beforehand] and grown up with the show, so there was a legacy that was coming with them. So [when Rosie came on] I thought, okay, what is she going to change? And for me, the most refreshing part was to have someone come in who didn’t know the show but took to it like a duck to water, understood what the show was and where it needed to go.

So I truly don’t believe we’ve lost a hell of a lot. We have made some massive changes to the format and the structure, and that is from the network’s guidance and what they wanted to do. And I know we’ve achieved it. Not everybody likes it, trust me. For those who are fans, you see one little change and it’s, “Whoa, what happened to this?” But it’s just a question of getting used to it. The changes have been instrumental [in getting the show back on the air], and I don’t believe we’ve damaged the core of the show in any way — which is the dancers we bring on.

Are there any changes from this season that you would like to walk back in future seasons, if possible?

Thacker: I think the biggest change for this season is the fact that we are no longer live. Even in 2019 when we were pre-taped, we were still taping within a schedule, so that when the episode went out, [the home audience] still had the opportunity to vote for their favorite dancer. This particular season, the way it’s been structured and scheduled for us has been a really big change. We don’t have the flexibility to let everybody vote, because we are filming shows now maybe one every four days. It’s a very tight schedule — the turnaround is aggressive for us. So I personally would like to think that in the next seasons, we could go back to giving [viewers] that choice.

Rosie, obviously you’ve got extensive experience in the talent competition format, but why did you want to come on board So You Think at this point in your career?

Seitchik: I’ve always been a true admirer of SYTYCD from afar — it’s one of the best and most integral competition shows out there, so when the stars aligned for me to get this opportunity, I jumped at it. It is truly about showcasing dance, and what happens when people come together and put on incredible performances. And it really is one of the most remarkable creative teams I’ve ever been blessed to share company with. Other shows don’t operate this way — they don’t have the kind of creative family that this show has that goes back years and years, which I think speaks volumes to what the show has been able to become, because it’s been able to hold on to so many incredible creative minds.

In light of the fact that Dancing with the Stars has shifted over to Disney+, do you think that talent competition formats are medium-agnostic, or is there something about the suspense and thrill of watching a live performance that makes them more intrinsic to traditional broadcast than streaming?

Thacker: I really believe that Dancing with the Stars will have a very smooth transition from mainstream to streaming, and I would also like to think that if there were other streaming platforms that felt that we could offer them something, we could easily go across there and do the show, without question. There’ve been many occasions where we’ve sat down and thought, would it improve us if we went on a streaming platform? Would we get more of a global awareness? The answer is, I don’t know, but the answer is not that [streaming] is not the way forward.

Seitchik: The live element is somewhat generational, too — it’s not what the newer generations expect. I don’t believe that it can only live on broadcast and in a live or live-taped environment. There’s growing pains that go along with that, like we’re seeing right now with our big voting changes. But I don’t think it’s something that audiences can’t get accustomed to, because the essence of the show is still there.

Given all the current and ongoing disruptions in the industry and the television medium, what do think the viability of big, splashily-produced competition formats is going forward?

Seitchik: I think that, in their original forms, these formats are not affordable anymore. The reality is that all of us have been collectively tasked with how to produce the essence of these beloved formats on a tighter budget, and I think there’s always more efficiencies to be found, which we’ve all been doing incrementally over the years already.

Thacker: Any show, on any network, is beholden to what they can spend — and what we are allowed to spend, we always make the best use of. I would like to think that anybody that is watching this new season would not see anything diminished in terms of what’s on screen. We’ve never been one of those shows that have massive sets — the focus has always been on our one stage, with two people dancing on it. Every program would like more money to spend, but would our show be made any better by spending more money? Not necessarily. When you see two dancers with nothing on that stage literally create magic, and it touches you… you can’t buy that.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.

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