As long as Kate Gosselin was around, "DWTS" viewers enjoyed… (Adam Larkey / Associated…)
Critics can say what they like about Kate Gosselin, but she's probably the best weapon yet devised against Simon Cowell.
Gosselin, the tabloid über-mom-turned-reality TV ultra-villain, finally got ushered off ABC's " Dancing With the Stars" last week. That's unwelcome news for the network, because during her short tenure she probably did more than anyone else to push the 10th season to the series' best ratings ever, allowing it to threaten Fox's " American Idol" as America's most-watched show. For three weeks this month, the Monday performance show of "DWTS" drew more viewers than "Idol" — the first time any Fox rival has managed to do that in five years.
As might be imagined, the very idea of ABC's dance competition toppling "Idol," for years the colossus of network TV, is enough to make Fox executives bristle. "Idol," they point out, may be down 5% in total viewers (to an average of 25.4 million for the Tuesday shows), but it still draws a much younger audience than the ABC show (a median age of 43 versus 55, according to the Nielsen Co.) and handily beats "DWTS" among viewers ages 18 to 49, the chief yardstick for network TV ad rates.
"This is like asking me to compare AARP magazine with Tiger Beat," Mike Darnell, Fox's reality guru and the network's point person overseeing "Idol," said of the race with "DWTS." "We don't take any of this seriously."
Maybe so, but many fans and analysts are taking note. "DWTS" was looking hoary in the fall, when '70s teen idol Donny Osmond won the competition and the show seemed devoid of drama.
Gosselin, the 35-year-old mother of eight who rose to tabloid fame as her marriage sputtered on TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8," changed all that. As long as she was around, "DWTS" viewers enjoyed a non-stop feast of melodrama and bad behavior. Gosselin chafed under the tutelage of her partner, Tony Dovolani, who during one tense rehearsal tore off his microphone and announced, "I quit."
Gosselin responded with tears: "I don't get it."
The duo patched things up, but when they got to the ballroom the results were almost uniformly panned. Judge Bruno Tonioli ripped their version of the jive as "a nightmare." When Gosselin was finally eliminated on April 20, she cried again — then went on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show and offered more of her characteristic defiance and bravado.
"Are things going to be a little more boring now that the mother of eight is gone?" Alyssa Lee asked on The Times' Showtracker blog. "Where can we direct our energy and vitriol now?"
For ABC, that's no idle question. The network is currently ranked fourth among young adults, with "DWTS" the brightest spot in an otherwise challenging season. The show has averaged 22.4 million total viewers, up 27% overall compared with last fall's cycle.
"They cast it well. I'll give them credit for that," Darnell said of the dance show. "But their biggest cast member has gone. The reason they were doing any number at all was Kate Gosselin, and she left."
ABC executives think that's overstating the case. "Casting obviously has a huge impact," said John Saade, ABC's senior vice president for alternative series, specials and late-night programming. "But there are a lot of other factors that have made this season really sparkle."
Among them: Reducing the size of the cast from 16 to 11, which Saade says helps viewers focus on the dancers' personalities earlier in the season. Then too, Gosselin wasn't the only drama queen: also among this season's cast: Shannen Doherty and Pamela Anderson.
DWTS may already be suffering a bit of Gosselin withdrawal. The show slipped 3% for Monday's performance, the first Kate-free edition, to 20.2 million viewers, compared with the week earlier.
Meanwhile, it's been "Idol's" turn to show signs of age.
"The buzz for ‘Idol' is starting to fade, and the raw numbers are wobbling," said Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University. Some of the problem may be traced to turmoil at the judges' table, McCall added: "The loss of Paula Abdul has likely hurt the show more than most observers would have thought."
Also potential factors: The oft-criticized addition of Ellen DeGeneres as a judge and the pending loss of lead judge Cowell, who's leaving to start his own "The X Factor" on Fox in 2011. "Can viewers still enjoy the show as much when they know its high tide might be in the past?" McCall asked. "The empire is showing signs of weakness."
But other analysts point out that although it may not be nearly as impressive as it was a few years ago, "Idol" still pulls the kind of numbers other networks would kill to get.
" ‘Idol' is still a hit, although a declining one, and appeals to a largely different audience than ‘Dancing,' " said Steve Sternberg, an independent analyst who writes the Sternberg Report blog about TV programming and ratings.
Fox executives agree, insisting that Gosselin hasn't done any long-term damage to "Idol." Any ninth-year show is going to show ratings erosion, Darnell said.
"This is still by far the biggest show on TV," he said. "Monumentally so."