'Idol' Has a Plan To Get a Leg Up On 'Dancing'

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Will Gwen Stefani beat Paul McCartney's dancing one-legged estranged wife in next week's battle of the competition series? Stay tuned Tuesday from 9 to 9:07 p.m.!

After carefully rescheduling "Dancing With the Stars" so as to get it out of the path of Fox ratings monster "American Idol," ABC learned that Fox will expand by seven minutes the allegedly one-hour "Idol" performance show next week -- meaning it will go head-to-head with the first seven minutes of the first results show on this edition of "Dancing."

When ABC announced its new play pattern for "Dancing" in January, ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson said in a statement that "the great thing about this air schedule is that fans won't have to choose between the two reality hits this spring."

The fourth edition of "Dancing" debuted Monday to its biggest opening crowd ever -- nearly 22 million viewers. Much credit is going to the casting of Heather Mills -- the show's first one-legged competitor, as show host Tom Bergeron noted frequently. Mills says she's doing the show to inspire children who have lost limbs. Cynics suggest she's also waging an image-repair campaign to neutralize the juicier bits about her that have surfaced during the sometimes acrimonious divorce process.

This is the first time that "Dancing" competitors get to perform two weeks before one is eliminated. This is a direct result of what we like to call the Tucker Carlson Factor. Last edition, Carlson was booted the very first week -- not because he was a lousy dancer, though he was, but so were others on the show. Theory is it was because the former CNN commentator turned MSNBC show host didn't have a big enough fan base -- people simply didn't know who he is, and "Dancing" competitors are eliminated based on how many points they get from voters and the show's judges.

So this week, there was no Tuesday voting results show. Not coincidentally, "Idol" had, as had long been planned, a two-hour performance broadcast on Tuesday. In the early going, when "Idol" is fat with competitors, performance broadcasts tend to run two hours. Next week was to have been the first Tuesday performance show to be a trim one hour.

Word from Fox is the "Idol" producers wanted the extra seven minutes because they have Stefani on board. Trying to jam 10 performances -- and all those ads -- into one hour is tough. And, when you think of it, one more four- or five-minute ad break leaves only about two minutes of actual additional programming.

Fox snagged Stefani to be a guest "mentor" -- they don't like to call them "coaches" -- to the "Idol" competitors as they rehearse their performances of pop tunes next week. Stefani is a big "get" for the show in that she's under 50. Most of the show's guest mentors and judges -- Barry Manilow, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, this week's Lulu and Peter Noone, etc. -- are not. Stefani is just 37.

But Stefani's got stuff to sell. Her second solo album opened soft; released on Dec. 5, 2006, it has sold only about 1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, though sales picked up as its second single became a hit.

She's also launching a tour, opening next month in Vegas, and on her Web site, almost all cities still show ticket availability (in the Washington area, she'll play the Nissan Pavilion, which holds about 20,000 people).

It's unclear just what Fox will do with the extra minutes on Tuesday. Stefani is not going to perform her single "The Sweet Escape" until Wednesday's results show -- the traditional night for the guest mentors to sing and plug whatever it is they're selling.

Outside Fox, the industry wasn't buying the whole "Idol"-producers-wanted-extra-time-just-'cause thing. Outside Fox, the talk was of Fox's "kill-it-in-the-cradle school" of counterprogramming. Airing "Idol" against the first results show of this "Dancing" edition smells like more of same, the grumbling went.

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