On a show like Dancing With the Stars, one problem with celebrity judges is they simply don’t have any ballroom dance expertise. They just show up to tell everyone how lovely they are and react to what they liked, which is what a lot of viewers already do at home — except the judges usually add a plug for their current project.
But in the past decade or so of reality TV competition shows, more and more celebrity guests have shown up to weigh in on the action while really just making sure everything stays about themselves. Two TV hosts, our own Tom Bergeron, and So You Think You Can Dance’s Nigel Lythgoe, talked to Variety about why celeb judges can be “problematic.”
Nigel was actually fired from American Idol, and he still doesn’t understand why, but he used it as an example of honest judging vs. honestly looking to make yourself look good on TV. “And I think the more that stars now are going on to be judges, it’s tougher for them to be as honest as a Simon Cowell, for instance, who really didn’t give a damn if you liked him or not,” Nigel told Variety, when discussing honesty as a key trait in a good reality TV show. “You weren’t going to buy his records and you weren’t going to go to his concerts. Now I think when some of the celebrities go out there, they’re frightened they’re going to lose fans.”
Tom agreed with that, and Nigel noted that “None of your judges are worried about that.” Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba are celebs to us, but they didn't start out as household names and they don't use DWTS as part of a PR campaign to look good and promote an album, etc.
On that note, though, Nigel talked about how so many shows now are becoming about the celeb judges instead of the actual contestants. He said The Voice is great and he loves the judges, but, “The show is almost turning more into their show when one will tweet out the other’s telephone number and the other will bung out a truckload of crap on the other. We’re forgetting what the program is about, which is the kids."
Shows have to be careful to remember what they are meant to be about, instead of getting caught up in stunt casting.
"When I did American Idol here, no one had heard of Simon Cowell,” Nigel continued. “No one had heard of Randy Jackson. People thought Paula Abdul was past it. Bringing them together and seeing the chemistry and the magic that they created for those years we all realized that you don’t need giant stars. Certainly when we put Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj together, big, big stars, both of them in their own right, and probably would have worked independently, did not work in any way shape or form together. I think it’s about chemistry. I don’t care if somebody’s a big star or not. Are they a good judge? That’s what it is for me, And are they entertaining? At the end of the day we’re an entertainment show.”
Tom added, “I think, too, the viewers don’t like to told, whether they think this consciously or not, here’s a big star. They like to think, we’re going to make a star. In the way they did with Simon. In the way they did with Randy. Brought the stardom back to Paula, to use that as an example. There’s a certain pride of ownership that viewers take when they latch onto something that hasn’t been already dictated to them.”
To bring it back to DWTS, you could certainly argue that the show has made stars of its pros. They are arguably bigger stars than a lot of the celebs who are cast, but DWTS also gives the celebs a career boost. The pros and judges are now famous, which is something they earned through the show. And it’s another reason why we like the idea of having former pros as guest or permanent DWTS judges instead of more celebrities (although you were very kind, Redfoo) because they’ve earned their spots through knowledge and experience. They can feel free to offer constructive criticism because 1) they know what they're talking about, and 2) they're not just there to promote their latest project, so they don't have to stay all sunshine and puppies.
Do you agree with Nigel and Tom that celebrity judges can be problematic, because they’re not always as honest and authentic as you need for a good competition show?