Quietly Dancing To the Top

Tom Bergeron on his hit show and how he’d fix American Idol
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He may not get the notoriety of a Ryan Seacrest or a latenight
personality, but Tom Bergeron is happy to quietly
be one of the biggest hosts on television. And as Dancing
With the Stars
enjoys unprecedented success against TV
death star American Idol, he spoke with B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego about his show and the
competition. Following is an edited transcript
of that conversation.


Let's talk about Dancing With the Stars
and its monster ratings. How competitive
is ABC against American Idol?

We're certainly thrilled. My sense is that we're
more realistic. I look at what's happening as a
sort of convergence of events.

Idol is having the season we had last season,
which is everything's just a little out of phase,
not quite working. Simon's got one foot out the
door, Ellen's getting her bearings, Ryan is overcompensating,
the [contestant] lineup is being
attacked for not being great.

Last season we had too many spray-tanned
bodies, and the number [of contestants] you'd
know immediately wasn't quite as high. [This
year] we lucked out with a really good cast. A
lot of things are falling right for us. And it just
seems that Idol is having one of those seasons where it's not going as well for them.

Would you like to be the show to unseat
Idol?

Yeah, you know it's great. We're happy to enjoy
it as long as it lasts, but they could come roaring
back next season. Personally, I'm loving it. I get
a kick out of the fact that it's probably making
them a little crazy. But also American Idol is like
an 800-pound gorilla, and you don't want to
poke it too much because they could just come
back. Look, if they're having our season nine,
next year they could have our season 10.

Do you think you will beat them in the
demo this year?

No.

Next season?

No, unless they keep trending downward,
which I'd be really surprised to see. I think
they'll always have the demo edge, because our
show just tends to skew older.

Who would you put in Simon's seat after
he leaves?


I'd look at one of the reasons we're successful.
We went back to basics. I think comedy works
best in threes. So does judging. I would call
Paula. Let's see if we can get back to where we
were because I think they're just getting further
away from that.

How do you think Ellen's doing?

I haven't watched it. I think Ellen is a remarkable
entertainer. I kind of scratched my
head about why she's on a singing-competition
show. I think they need to have people
who--and again, this is just me if I were the
hypothetical executive producer--have colorful
personalities with a background in the competition
discipline.

Dancing v Idol

You will probably be up against The X
Factor.
What do you make of that?

If Simon gets Paula, which I would do if I were
him, I'd be curious to see it. I think that's going
to be a formidable competition, because you just
want to see what Cowell's going to do. People
will tune in for the first week or two and make a
decision based on, "OK, is this basically Cowell
doing Idol with extra acts, or is this something
new and fresh?" But don't underestimate the
guy. This is what he did in England.

I see a lot of coverage of Ryan Seacrest
and what he's doing, compared to you.
Does that bother you?

No. I think part of it is I'm 20 years older than
he is and that's not a real hunger for me. I'm
on--hate to say it, Ryan--the #1 show on
television; sorry about that [laughs]. I don't
need more people to recognize me in the supermarket.
I've been a broadcaster since I was
17, so to be in my 50s and have this kind of
moment happening, I have no complaints.

And I give him all the credit because he's
putting in the hours. And he has a different
vision for his career than I've had for
mine. He has the Dick Clark model of being
a producer and wearing as many hats
as possible. I love my time, like when I'm
done here at the end of May, I'm going to be
back East for a couple of months practicing
semi-retirement.

I asked Ryan once when I was at his radio
show during a break, "Tell me what a week is
like." And he started going over his schedule.
I think he was about two days in and I got
claustrophobic. People think I'm busy, but he's
just...don't know.

How many jobs would you like to have?

I don't want to do any more hosting things.

You once almost ended up on Good
Morning America. So, when Diane Sawyer
went onto the evening news, why not
throw your hat in?

It's funny, when it happened my publicist called
me and said,"The New York Post called me and
said you're on a short list for GMA. Do you have
a quote?" And I said, "Yes, I have a quote. You
can tell them I'm happy where I am now, and
the only reason I'd get up at 3 o'clock in the
morning is to go to the bathroom."

What do you think of those shows today?

It's a very formulaic show. I have such a respect
for Matt [Lauer] and others who do it. Because
you're cramming for a final exam every night.
You're sleeping whenever you can, at a different
rhythm than the rest of the world. And overnight
a news story can break, like the Monica
Lewinsky scandal that erupted when I was filling
in on GMA, so everything I'd been planning
to do for the show and was in my notes went
out the window overnight. It was a rebuilt show.
So, I'd be up at 3:30, get to the office at 5. It's a
surreal kind of life. But the formats themselves,
they're identical. Really, it's like every show's like
the other show except who's fronting them.

Yes or no question: Would you like to be
in the news game?

No. I was never an anchor or reporter; none of
that ever appealed to me.

Do you watch the evening news?

I haven't watched the evening news in years. I
think it's a relic of another era. In the old days,
the evening news was where you went to find
out what was going on. So, I think the evening
news, going back to the Cronkite days, doesn't
exist anymore. But that's true of late night, too.
To me, the gold standard was Johnny Carson,
and look where that franchise has gone. My
God. I think Jon Stewart probably has that
role now more than the late-night talk show
hosts do. I think he's more analogous to Carson
now.

Would you ever consider late night?

No. There's nothing I could bring that would
be markedly different. I look at Craig Ferguson
as being the most innovative of the late-night
people right now. I watch him and I see almost
a [mix of] Jack Paar and Letterman and Carson.
And I couldn't do a better show than Craig
does.

You know what I wouldn't mind going back
to: radio. On occasion I've gone and been a
guest on Howard [Stern's] show. Oh, just to get in a radio studio. Especially with satellite
radio now, it's kind of looser.

Do you want to do more guest
spots like your recent appearance
on Castle?

Yes. I really don't want to host any more
stuff, but [I'd do] an occasional one-off
guest spot. There was interest in me
doing Hannah Montana, but I turned it
down because they wanted me to play
a host. I was like, why? If I do another
episodic hour, I want to be the killer. I
want to last more than five minutes.

You're not exclusive to ABC, are
you?

In primetime, I am. So, I can be a wacky
uncle on a CBS soap.

When you talk about doing other
things"and not wanting to host
more shows”you're not saying
you don't want to continue doing
what hosting you have going now,
correct?

Right. I have another year on the
[America's Funniest Home] Videos contract,
and I'm signed up with Dancing. If it lasts
until 2013, I will happily be there.

Do you expect to continue Videos?

We'll certainly talk about it.

Do you think you get the credit you
should have for
Dancing With the Stars?

You think I should have more credit? Should I have billboards? Goddammit, give me a
billboard!

The way my sense of humor works is this:
There's this TMZ guy, Carlos. We're on a first name
basis now. He hangs out outside the
Starbucks near where I live. The first time
he followed me, he said, "Excuse me, you're
on television, right?" I said, "Yes." He said, "You're a real big star, right?" I go, "Yeah, real
big star." And he said, "Can you help me out,
what's your name?" And I love that shit. I said, "Wayne Brady." Harvey [Levin] still has the
tape. [Carlos] goes, "Wait, he's black." And I
said, "Is he?" So, he said, "Improvise something."
So, I said, "I'm improvising a middleaged
white guy. Isn't that good enough?"

But, see, I love that. For another example,
when a producer of The View asked a
producer of Hollywood Squares, when I was
doing that show, if I were interested in doing
The View, I said yeah; I had never done
it. Meredith [Vieira] was still the main host.
A few weeks went by and I never heard
anything back, so I asked the producer at
Squares about it and she said, "Well, this is
embarrassing. The producers came to us.
She went back to pitch you, and they were
excited at first because they thought they
meant Tom Berenger."

If I had more kudos for what I do, I would
be denied these stories. And [with] my sense of
humor, I love it. I love that shit.

But really, you're on primetime more than
any other host. And it does not bother
you that the
TMZ guy says, "I'm sorry,
what's your name"?

For all of us, whether it's the person who's getting
all of the attention or the person who's getting
less "and you're very kind to argue that" it's all
a hiccup in time. I mean, 10 years from now
there'll be new people getting a lot or not enough
attention. So, have fun. If I were to be so petty in
the midst of the success I'm enjoying that I had
a hair across my ass because somebody didn't
know my name in a parking lot'I mean, how
ridiculous is that? Read a newspaper, get a grip.

This is so much more of a career than I expected
I would have this deep into my run. So,
I'm pretty happy with where it is. That said, you
want to interview me, I'm here!

Back to DWTS. It's on a
two-cycle-per-year schedule. There are many examples of shows whose wheels came
off from overuse
, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC being one of them. Do you get concerned about that happening
with
Dancing?

Yes. I got very concerned last season when we did the
three-night premiere and we were doing two-hour shows every Monday night
throughout the entire season. And my concern was that, and I think it was borne
out in the rocky season we had, you can only pour so much water into a soup
before it stops tasting like soup. And I think that was the season where we
realized both within the show and the network that, OK, there is a breaking
point here and we may have come dangerously close to it. Because they had to
have 16 spray-tanned bodies at the start to keep the show going through to the
end, and it just didn't work.

You said earlier you thought Idol should have three judges and they should call Paula. If they called
Paula, they would still have four judges. So, who goes?

I'll give you this by way of anecdote. I have hosted the
College TV Awards for the past four years. And this past awards, Nigel Lythgoe
received a humanitarian award for creating Idol
Gives Back
and other charities. When he got up and I went to sit down,
Nigel said to me, "Tom, congratulations on DWTS
beating American Idol for the past
two weeks." Then he turned to the audience, some of whom where Fox executives,
and he said to them with perfect timing, "Never happened while I was executive
producer."

So, I think there's a template for the show and the further
you get away from that, there's too much water in the soup. [That's] one of the
reasons I think Simon would be well advised to have Paula right at his elbow
with only a third body there when X
Factor
launches. I shouldn't be giving him this advice, but I'm sure he's
thought of this himself; he's pretty smart. It is because he can recreate the
winning template of American Idol.
Because Idol has drifted so far away
from it. Simon's in a unique position to recreate that with his new show.

Speaking of skin and this show, is it me or are there many fewer yards
of fabric in the costumes this year?

Well, there was one show a few weeks ago when I ad-libbed,
"Welcome to the world of fabric remnants," because it just struck me. And Kim
Johnson did a dance in a white shirt and basically black bikini underwear.
There's always been a lot of skin on the show, but there might be a little more
this season.

You think that might have something to do with the ratings boost?

It keeps me showing up. I'm never late for work!

You had a deal to host Good Morning America in the 90s but you didn't end up doing it, right?

I didn't, actually. The contract then was to replace Charlie
Gibson. And Lisa McCree and I were just chemistry-impaired, to put it
charitably. She had been the person they hired to replace Joan Lunden.
Elizabeth Vargas and I had done a week where they were kind of testing me out.
And Elizabeth and I clicked immediately. So, on the strength of that week, they
signed me to this contract. But then it was clear that they had an
oil-and-water situation. So, when they basically, per the agreement, cut me a
check and said bye-bye, I really had nothing to do with Good Morning America until recently.

I went off and did Hollywood
Squares
for six years, and then Videos
kind of happened in that span as well.

Did you think Videos would
last as long as it has?

Oh, God, no. We call that show "the annuity." If memory
serves, when the contract was being negotiated, it was a five-year contract and
[creator-executive producer] Vin [Di Bona's] own lawyer told Kenny [Lindner] or
Babette [Perry] because I think she was still with Ken at that time, "Don't
worry; it won't last that long." I don't think anyone expected it would click
again.

Um, so it's like the cockroach of primetime?

Oh, come on, Melissa! The cockroach?!

I'm sorry; I have to say one stupid thing every day.

We will survive when all other shows are dead! We'll be
there-with Law & Order.

Would you like to be a producer on DWTS?

I'm working with great people there. We all respect each
other and they know I've been doing this a long time, and they've come to trust
my instincts and my sense of what works and what doesn't. I'm one voice among
many, and I'm not the final authority by any stretch. But last season, I wasn't
bashful about [saying], "OK, we're shooting ourselves in the foot."

Before season 10 did what it's been doing, I told my wife
that if the ratings are soft, we're looking at maybe getting this down to once
a year and it may go away, but now I think it's shown the format is really
durable. Which is why with Idol,
though there's a feeding frenzy there, I'm the last person to say they're down
for the count because the truth is everybody has a bad season. It's inevitable.
And this is theirs. With the right choices, and they have some hard ones to
make, they could come back very strong next season.

Lots of people voted for Kate Gosselin, but clearly a lot of people
aren't fans. Do you think she's been treated fairly in the media?

I can only base it on my experience with her because I never
saw Jon & Kate Plus 8. I had just
seen her from tabloid covers. The Kate Gosselin I interacted with-I said to her
on the air that sometimes you are crazy nervous because you are so far out of your
element. And I think when you get beat up by the press, you tend to have your
guard up. But she was also quick to smile and had a self-deprecating sense of
humor; I found her to be really very sweet. So, when I see all the vitriol that
goes on, like the fan page on Facebook-it's the danger of the Internet that you
can just post whatever without a second thought.

The person I knew was this woman who burst into tears
Tuesday night. You know, it meant something. Something about this whole
commitment she made, even if it wasn't apparent in most of her dances that she
really cared about it. She was invested in it as best she could be with all the
other shit that's going on in her life. So, I do think she's being treated
unfairly.

But I think that sometimes with headlines, it's easy. Look
at Fox News; they decided Obama's the devil and now they're going with that.
Truth is, there's a lot of that; they're not the only ones guilty of that.
They're just the most egregious.

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