Running a network’s alternative division these days is no easy task. A tumultuous television season and the evolving business model for network television has put even more of a spotlight on the genre, and a Screen Actors Guild strike wouldn’t make things any easier.
But ABC’s John Saade, who runs the network’s department alongside Vicki Dummer, is just focusing on the task at hand. And having a solid reality stable anchored by a warhorse like Dancing with the Stars doesn’t hurt.
But Saade’s team isn’t resting on its current crop, and it is trying to have a little fun this summer with two shows that have their roots in the wild world of Japanese game shows.
He spoke with B&C about what’s ahead for Dancing, the unfamiliar buzz in the ABC hallways right now and why his network wouldn’t air Fox hit Moment of Truth.
Q: Are you happy with how Dancing performed this year?
A: You never know how a season will play out. I mean, it’s really hard to compete with Marie Osmond fainting, but we were thrilled.
Q: Do you need to tweak the show to keep the numbers up?
A: I don’t believe a major course correction needs to happen. The fundamentals of the show are still strong, and obviously, it’s completely personality-based, so obviously, casting is always the main focus.
Q: Were you surprised by all of the negative attention heaped on American Idol’s ratings this year?
A: It’s just a further tribute to the show that it still gets so much attention. What happened across the entire television landscape happened to Idol and it makes front-page news. It was as strong as ever, but with shows like Idol and Dancing, because fans participate, they have great ownership, so it’s almost a public trust and [changes] become a much bigger issue.
A: As the clips roll out, everyone will see that they look and feel very different. It’s a completely separate sell for both shows. Wipeout is just for the humor. I Survived a Japanese Game Show is a more traditional reality show. It almost has a Larry Sanders feel -- you are backstage with the contestants, and then watching a game show.
Q: Given the evolving environment in broadcast television and what happened this season, is there more pressure on your department than ever?
A: Yes and no. One great luxury is [that ABC entertainment president] Steve [McPherson] doesn’t try to turn any show into a business model. He wants us to find good shows and just start from there.So we just focused on making shows that we think will work in the summer, and not worrying about where they will go. With The Mole and the new shows like [a reality show based on High School Musical], we think we have very clear concepts. Now we just hope we can make them work for the summer.
Q: How else has the strike affected your job?
A: We actually held back some shows that may have debuted [this spring] because we didn’t want to look like we were relying on reality shows.It’s a bizarre season, everyone’s rhythm is completely off. It feels different in the hallways here. For instance, there is a ton of casting now when everyone is normally taking vacations. But alternative as a genre is still the Wild West. There has never really been a rhythm.
Q: With the reality you program, do you need to keep an overall feel? For instance, Moment of Truth does big numbers on Fox thanks in part to its ‘squirm factor.’ Can you do those shows?
A: We have to stay from that kind of stuff. In an increasingly fractured market, we are trying to create shows that entire families can watch together. I know that sounds cliché. We have to stay away from the really squirmy stuff. I don’t think the audience wants that out of us.
Q: So you honestly wouldn’t take Moment of Truth, which is a huge hit for Fox?
A: No. For us, it’s a different place. Fox has a brand, the audience knows they are going to take those kinds of risks. Our audience holds us to a different standard. Even with the show’s ratings. For any of the networks to survive, you have to find out who you are and stick to it.
Q: Is the threat of a SAG strike affecting what you are doing now?
A: Professionally I have to say not really, but honestly, as a fan of broadcast television, I do worry. I worry about the way it changes the business and once audiences are gone, will they come back? The jury is still out.