Philly Station Puts New 'Twist' on Dance Show

Teenybopper pop music programs in Philly go back to 'Bandstand,' and step forward too

Like the cheesesteak and Rocky Balboa, the teen dance show Dancin’ on Air was once a local institution in Philadelphia. The show ran for seven years in the 1980s, airing five days a week at 4 p.m., and offered beforethey- were-famous moments in the spotlight for the likes of Madonna and Duran Duran.

After repeats of the big-hair, high-cheese shows—featuring some “Where Are They Now?” updates—popped in the ratings last summer, Vincent Giannini, VP and general manager of Tribune Broadcasting-owned MyNetworkTV affiliate WPHL, opted to shoot 13 new episodes for Saturday mornings. “We got a great response and decided to bring [the show] back with first-run episodes,” says Giannini. “It has new music and new hosts, and we’re giving it a shot.”

Dance shows have been part of the Philadelphia cultural landscape for more than a half-century. American Bandstand, of course, debuted as Bandstand in Philly in 1952. Other local dance shows have included The Discophonic Scene, Summertime on the Pier and Hy Lit. Chuck Darrow, a features and entertainment writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, says the shows spawned from the city’s prominence on the national music scene, and the fact that dancing has simply always been a part of teen culture in the region.

“Philadelphia is not only the cradle of liberty,” Darrow says. “It’s the cradle of televised dance parties, too.”

The rebooted Dancin’ on Air, produced by On Air Productions and original executive producer Michael Nise, isn’t the only youth dance series on today in DMA No. 4. NBC-owned WCAU shows the pre-teen Party Rockers Tween Scene on Saturdays at 11 a.m.; the station has aired a teen version of the show at midnight as well.

Darrow says the decision to bring back Dancin’ on Air was “fairly big news here.”

Premiering in 1981, Dancin’ offered a glimpse at up-and-coming acts before MTV—with its game-changing videos—was widely distributed. The show had local flavor as well. Dancers included a telegenic South Jersey girl named Kelly Ripa, and performers included the Fresh Prince (a.k.a. West Philly kid Will Smith), Menudo (featuring a young Ricky Martin) and New Kids on the Block. Giannini says Dancin’ routinely bested national dance shows, including American Bandstand and Soul Train, in the ratings. Dancin’ was syndicated in 1986 as Dance Party USA.

“It’s not exactly accurate to call it an ’80s American Bandstand, but it certainly had a place in the Philly market. No question about it,” says Darrow. “It was important to the artists to be on the show.”

The new season shoots at a club called The Fuge, which is short for Centrifuge. Eric Shipon, executive VP of marketing for On Air Productions, describes the place as a former covert aeronautic testing center that has been converted into an events space. The offbeat venue adds to the show’s funky vibe, Shipon says: “People like the idea that they never knew it existed.”

Dancin’ gets 250-300 kids out on the floor, says Giannini. Recent guests have included the Philadelphia Phillies’ ball girls and the Philadelphia 76ers’ dance crew, along with the pop acts DaCaV5 and Rita Ora. (If you haven’t heard of those performers, Giannini stresses that Dancin’s musical acts are up-and-coming, same as Madonna—her poofy, frosted hair spilling out of a fedora—was when she visited in 1982.)

WPHL will give Dancin’ on Air a primetime boost May 27 with a two-hour Memorial Day weekend special. The show has increased its average rating among kids 12-17 since premiering March 31, up to a 0.6. Household ratings have not done as well, premiering with a 0.4 and slipping to a 0.2 four weeks later—perhaps indicating the nostalgia factor subsiding among Gen X viewers.

But the kids are key. “It’s not a big adult push, but the 12-17 numbers are starting to pop,” says Giannini. “It gets a lot of viral play. Every kid on the show tells their friends, and they tell their friends.”

Dancin’ is a branding play for WPHL as well. “We want to get into original productions that set the station apart,” Giannini adds. “Eventually, we’d like to think it will be a good source of revenue.”

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