How ‘Dancing with the Stars’ is waltzing through the COVID-19 pandemic

“Dancing with the Stars” is returning to the ballroom next week. However, the long-running ABC competition format, which premieres its 29th season on Monday, Sept. 14, will be dancing to a slightly different tune as a result of COVID-19.

ABC alternative chief Rob Mills and showrunner Andrew Llinares tell Deadline how the BBC Studios-produced format, which will now be hosted by Tyra Banks, will waltz back on to screens and what they are doing differently as a result of the pandemic.

The producers of the show have had six months to figure out how to make it happen in a time of uncertainty. Llinares said, “The challenge for us is that we still want to do what we normally do on the show and bring it back better than ever and evolve it but now we have this whole additional prism to look at it through. We want to make sure from a COVID point of view that we’re bringing it back safely for everyone in the cast and crew and have a show that we can all get really excited about.”

Mills, who is SVP, alternative series, specials and late-night programming at ABC Entertainment, added that there was never a doubt that the network would be able to do it, it was just a case of how. “This [show] definitely presented a unique challenge. It’s not wrong to compare it to a sporting event, just as we’ve seen the NBA and Major League Baseball, it looks different but also the same.”

All of the celebrities, including “Tiger King’s” Carole Baskin, rapper Nelly, “Selling Sunset’s” Chrishell Stause, former NBA star Charles Oakley, Anne Heche and Backstreet Boys singer AJ McLean, have relocated to LA for the entire season in order to avoid travel.

“World of Dance” judge Derek Hough, a former professional dancer of the show between 2007 and 2016 will be joining the judging panel, in place of Len Goodman, who is not able to make it to the U.S. from London due to the COVID travel ban. The team hope that Goodman will be involved remotely in some form.

The judges’ desk will be widened to maintain eight feet between each judge and dancers will be asked to stand at a distance of at least eight feet from the judges during the judging process.

The rehearsal dance studio has been equipped with remote cameras rather than in person camera crews as in previous seasons.

There will also be no audience for the show, which will still be produced and aired live, or band, and the team at BBC Studios have redesigned the studio as a result. Llinares said, “What we didn’t want to have in the ballroom was loads of empty seats, we wanted it to look like there was a purpose to it so we’re redesigning the ballroom. We’re going to put in some extra screens, it’s going to look like the show was always designed to look this way.”

Mills added, “Obviously, we can’t have an audience there and that’s a big component of the show, the energy. These are the types of things that lead to creativity and I think we’ll figure out how to make it work and still feel entertaining without an audience. Beyond that, the show’s going to look the same as the show you know and love.”

Gone also are backing dancers and big set pieces – there will be no dance routines with cars or castles in order to cut down on the number of people needed to put together the production.

The sky lounge has been removed from the set so the celebrities will practice social distancing while watching the other celebrities’ dance from the second floor balcony.

Llinares said, “That’s a whole different way for the show to operate behind the scenes because normally the couples hang out together a lot and on camera we won’t have the skybox area where they hang out, they’ll still in the ballroom watching each other but they’ll be eight feet apart.”

The dancers, both the celebrities and pro dancers, will be tested five times a week. “The central premise of the show is two people who are in very close proximity with each other. They as a couple on the show will stay as a pod – they won’t come in to contact with the other couples to the point that we’ve got three set of married pro dancers and they will be living separately for as long as they’re in the competition,” he added.

Mills, who joked that across ABC’s slate of non-scripted shows in production that he’s had every iteration of COVID test possible, said, “It’s amazing how much we’ve learned between March and now and how we can limit exposure so the chance of getting infected are minimal. Each show has been different. With this show, where there is a lot of contact, it’s going to be one of the stricter ones. There’s a lot of close contact compared to gameshows, which were the first ones to come back, where it’s very easy to distance every one and have a very small footprint.”

The key is to keep it live and running across 11 weeks. “One of the hallmarks of the show is that it’s live and they still have to learn a new dance each week so it wouldn’t cut down on production time. It makes sense to stay live,” added Mills.

Llinares admitted that this was a challenge but he and his team were helped by lessons learned from colleagues around the world. “One of the great things about “Dancing with the Stars” is that it’s a global show and it’s been on in many parts of the world during the pandemic, in Australia, Germany, Ireland and some others. That gave us the confidence that we could go ahead and do this live,” he said, adding that the annual get together of showrunners from the “Come Dancing” format generally meet in London once a year, although this was done over Zoom this year.

The former “X Factor” exec producer hopes that these changes may even give the show a creative boost. “What’s weirdly exciting about all of this is that it focuses the show on what it’s really meant to be about, which is the couple dancing. I think we’ll get more focus on the couples because of it and that could be really refreshing. Over the years, it’s evolved and layers and layers of extra production and staging have been added on and I think we’ll get back to what the show was in the beginning,” he said. “When we started looking at this season, we really felt we only wanted to do it if we could do it safely and we feel really good about that. Now, our focus, within these rather strange parameters, is making a show that everyone can really enjoy. It’s exciting. It’s starting to feel scary real now.

Mills added, “It will still feel exactly the same and give you that two-hour break from what’s going on in the world.”

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