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‘Dancing With the Stars’ Boss on Bringing a ‘Visceral’ Live Competition Series to Disney+

”We’re having to relearn what we can pull off and keep pushing the boundaries,“ veteran producer Conrad Green tells TheWrap

“Dancing With the Stars” premieres on Disney+ this coming Monday, making it the first competition series to debut live on a streaming service — a feat that executive producer Conrad Green says is sure to get everyone’s adrenaline pumping.

“It’s like a NASCAR pitstop,” the producer told TheWrap.

Green is returning to the series after launching the show on ABC in 2005. After exiting in 2014, he said it felt only right to come back to the show when it’s going through another landmark transition. And for Green, the key to success will be “pushing the boundaries” to create a show that’s even more spectacular than it was on broadcast television, he added.

In a new interview with TheWrap, Green laid out just how he’ll do just that, including breaking out of the confines of the two-hour time window, as well as bringing back some fan favorites like the sky box and the dance troupe.

TheWrap: What are some of the biggest changes viewers can expect [while] watching ‘DWTS’ on Disney+?

Conrad Green: The biggest change in many ways is there’s no ad breaks. So it’s a live live live show. I mean, it’s always been one of the [most] live shows on TV in that respect. Now, it’s even more so because it’s more like a Broadway production, where there’s no time for breath throughout the whole thing. So the consequence of that is we’re bringing back the sky box, the area where the celebrities used to hang out. Alfonso has joined as a host, which I think is going to be amazing alongside Tyra. So it’ll be more like the pattern that it used to be where Tyra talks to the judges [and] gets the scores. [Contestants] go to the box, they talk to Alfonso and they get their scores when they’re in the sky box. Then we chat a bit more. So, in that sense, that will be familiar to people who’ve watched the show from day one. But it means what we will be doing on the floor is a bit like swans that are trying to look regal, but under the name of paddling furiously. We’ll be trying to clear the floor and putting the next props in place and all that kind of stuff. So it’s more of a technical challenge for us as a production, but we’ve got such a good, reliable team on the show now that we’re confident we [can] pull it off. I think what it will do is make the show feel even more visceral and live.

So while the audience is getting more time with contestants, the production will be scrambling below.

Ad breaks used to be times that we could comfortably change props, but now it’s just relentless. It also means the shows will be longer and there’ll be a bit more time with the celebrities. The judges will be able to talk a little bit longer. It won’t be quite as frantic as it [had] been in some of the earliest shows, but it will still move at a good pace. Otherwise, really what we want to bring is the same show. Ultimately, it’s always been a show about the stories of people learning to dance and trying to pull off the impossible. While that looks like it’s the same thing every time, it’s absolutely not. There’s an infinite amount of those stories, because everyone’s journey is slightly different on the show.

We’re bringing back the dance troupe, which is going to be two amazing guys and girls who we can use in between as people are moving out. We might, in some of the shows, get Len [Goodman] to come out from behind his desk and actually give us a little tutorial while people are walking over. He can say ‘Well, this is the Rumba. Here’s how it works, and what I look for.’ He can be doing that as [a dancer] moves so you can literally point them out. We’re looking at different ways of breaking up of flow of the show a little just so it doesn’t become too relentless.

Do you see the move to Disney+ as a chance to tap into the digital side of things and make the show more interactive?

I mean, at the moment we’re focusing on the transition, which is just getting the show over there. To be honest, doing a big, live entertainment show without breaks on a streamer is kind of a first. So that in itself was a thing and getting people who watch streamers used to tuning in in real time rather than having everything being when you want it. Of course you can watch it later. But if you want to get engaged in the show, if you want to have an element of control over who stays and goes you need to watch it like it’s a live show. So just that portion of it at first is our challenge — to bring some of the urgency of the live show on ABC over.

I’m wondering about your approach to casting and how you tap into cultural conversations to find the right contestants.

I’ve come back to the show, so I had a few years away from it. But right from day one, we’ve always had a wish list of people. Deena Katz, who does the casting on the show and is the co-executive producer, is amazing. She’s been on since day one, and she’s so persuasive. Some people she started talking [with] in 2005 when we did the first show, and they didn’t appear until 2020. A lot of people find it quite intimidating. On the other hand, there’s people who have come up out of the ether almost right away. They suddenly sort of present themselves, and we think ‘That’d be a great idea.’ I think what we always look to try and do on the show is expand the types of people we’ve had. So like last season, we had our first same sex couple. It’s always nice to just change the dynamic and have a different feel. We’ve got one of the contestants on this show who is unlike any we’ve had before, and I think it’s gonna be really interesting to see. We’re also looking to keep up with the times. We started in 2005. That’s before the iPhone came in. So that’s way before social media. Now we’re in a world where traditional old school media has been broken down. We’ve got to try and keep up with that and reflect that in the celebrities and stars who come through, while also making sure that we’re not leaving our main audience behind. So it’s a balancing act.

You’ve mentioned that there will be more challenges because you can’t throw to ads anymore. How are you going to prepare for the unexpected then? What’s the plan?

I mean, this is what producers lie awake at night dreaming up. What if terrible catastrophes are gonna happen? It’s hard. In the past, you can throw to break. So one of the things we’ve been trying to work out is what’s our equivalent of throwing to break? … By and large, most [emergencies], we have some kind of plan for but this is also why you have great hosts and a team that’s reactive. We’ve managed to work around a hell of a lot of things that I never would have foreseen. … I was so impressed with what the team did in the last couple of years of COVID, managing to pull off a show amid all of the restrictions and difficulties of shooting in that way. Obviously COVID hasn’t gone away, but the world has sort of changed its relationship to COVID a little. So we’re definitely bringing an audience back this season, which I think is hugely important. It’s a big entertainment show, and without seeing human beings in the back shot, enjoying it — that takes a lot away from it. So we’re really happy that we’re able to bring back some of these more familiar aspects that make it feel like the show that people have enjoyed so much over time.

It all sounds a bit intimidating.

It’s like a NASCAR pitstop. We’re going to have to now treat those swap overs almost like a stopwatch, because from the minute the dance finishes, and the judge has given their comments and they’re sent up to the sky box for the chat with Alfonso … you’ve maybe got three minutes total to quietly get props out and in. I was on the show from day one, and I look back on the set then and it looks so primitive. Over the years, we’ve got better and better at squeezing that room to get more and more production out of it. Now I look at it and it’s a huge improvement from what it was when I left. So now we’re having to relearn what we can pull off and keep pushing the boundaries. And that’s the fun bit. I think that the adrenaline comes from pulling it off.

“Dancing With the Stars” premieres Monday 9/19 at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET on Disney+.