DWTS14: A Refresher on the Importance of Running Order

Since there still seems to be some confusion on what running order positions are “good” or “bad” (even though I feel like Heidi & I have repeated ourselves ad infinitum), I thought now might be a good time to give everyone a crash course in the “Courtney & Heidi Theory of Running Order” :-) I did more of an experimental post about running order back in 2010, but since then Heidi & I have honed our theory a bit more and it’s time for an update!

For those of you just wanting the Cliff’s Notes version, here’s the basic gist: the beginning, middle, and end of the show are the best positions, and it’s better to dance in the 2nd half of the show than the first.  And why is that, you ask? The answer: ratings. If you’re still interested, read on…

So what makes going 1st an advantage? In theory, you’ve got the attention of all the folks that tuned in at 8 PM, before they lose interest and change the channel.  The 8 PM-9PM time slot is quite possibly the most competitive weeknight time slot – most networks try to put their big-hitters with broad-spectrum appeal in this slot, as it’s the hour that families are most likely to be watching TV together, before the kids (and sometime grandma & grandpa) go to bed.  It therefore stands to reason that TPTB would want to put a popular, attention-grabbing couple at the top of the first hour to try and hold viewers’ interest and keep them from changing the channel – say, to How I Met Your Mother on CBS or The Voice on NBC.  How does it benefit the couple? Obviously they get some good exposure, but it also tends to benefit them in the voting.  While we diehard viewers may start voting for a couple at the beginning of the show that may not actually be dancing until the end of the show, the average viewer may not start voting until they see a couple that really impresses them – my mom tends to vote this way.  She’ll see a couple that she really likes, and even though the show might not be over yet, she’ll use all her votes on that particular couple (sometimes she’ll regret it later when she sees a couple she likes even more, but that’s neither here nor there ;-)).  Going first can help a couple snare some impulse votes, before a viewer sees anyone else and change their mind.  It also tends to keep them memorable, since they’re the first couple the viewers see.

But going 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and sometimes 5th is bad? Yes, because there will inevitably be viewers that do lose interest and change the channel.  Maybe the couple that went first didn’t impress them, maybe they know their favorite is dancing later, maybe they just would rather see what’s going on over on The Voice.  For whatever reason, there will always be people that don’t stay tuned in, and they’re going to be most likely to change the channel after the first couple has danced…which means that those dancing 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and sometimes 5th (depending on how fast the show is running) are gonna get missed before those people might tune back in at the top of the 2nd hour (more on that later). TPTB are aware of this, and thus seem to put couples who they don’t anticipate to be big ratings draws in those positions – the Kristin Cavallaris, Michael Boltons, and Shannen Dohertys of the world often end up relegated to the “running order positions of doom”, as Heidi & I call them.  They save the big hitters for the times of peak viewership – no point in wasting the exposure when fewer people are tuned in.  So those who maybe aren’t pulling in quite so many votes or generating quite as much buzz tend to get shoved in these “filler” positions – and it doesn’t do them any favors.  Fewer people watching = less of a chance that they get the votes they need to stay.  I haven’t had time to rerun my stats since my previous running order post, but something to the tune of 40% of all eliminations occur during a week when a couple danced in one of these “positions of doom”.  It’s especially gloomy for those with a small voting fanbase, like Elisabetta – practically a death sentence, since they need all the votes they can possibly get and they’re getting relegated to a position of lower exposure. 

But going in the middle is good, too? Yes, because viewership increases at the top of the 2nd hour, when all of those silly folks watching How I Met Your Mother & Two Broke Girls have to find something else to watch :-) There are almost always more people watching the 2nd half of DWTS than the first half – I think the 9-10 pm time slot generally isn’t quite as competive as the 8-9 pm one (since the kids and the grandparents have usually gone to bed), so there’s somewhat less competition for DWTS.  Plus, folks seem to have wised up and figured out that they save the more exciting couples for the 2nd half of the show (even my mom figured that one out, without me telling her – “I’m gonna go back in the bedroom and watch House, I’ll be back out at 9!”).  Going in the middle is good for all the same reasons going first is good – except at the beginning of the 2nd hour, there are even more viewers ;-)

And going in the 2nd half of the show is good? Yep, see above – more viewers in the 2nd hour of the show than the first.

But going last is the absolute best, right? YES :-D There’s a reason why we call it the “pimp spot” – it’s the most coveted running order position, and TPTB seem to be very picky & choosy about which couples they give it to.  It’s almost always either a high-scoring couple from the previous week, or a couple that’s generating a lot of buzz (either good or bad), or a couple that has a dynamite routine, or every once in awhile, a couple that TPTB seem to be invested in keeping around (David Arquette comes to mind – he was neither a high-scorer or a big vote-getter – yet they gave him the pimp spot the week after he almost went home).  It benefits TPTB by keeping viewers tuned in all the way to the end of the show, by having  a popular couple dance last; it benefits the couple by creating anticipation, as well as letting them be the freshest in viewers’ minds when they’re voting. This is the position that is LEAST likely to get a couple sent home – as of the last stats I ran, only 1 or 2 couples in DWTS history got sent home after dancing in that spot, and of those, one was in season 1 (before the show was really popular), and the other happened later in the comptition in season 8 – which brings me to my next point…

So this formula works all season, right? No :-) This whole “first, middle, and last are good, and 2nd half is better than the first half” rule really only holds true for about the first 5 or 6 weeks of the competition.  Why? Well, there are two reasons.  The primary one seems to be that, by the midpoint of the competition, viewers have pretty much already picked their favorites, and aren’t very likely to get swayed as much by running order – they’re gonna vote for their favorites whether they’re dancing 2nd or dancing last.  Also a factor? By week 6, the couples have usually started doing more than one dance per week – the group dance and team dances are usually done at the end of the show, so it pretty much negates the pimp spot; in the later weeks (week 8 through the finale) the couples are doing 2 individual dances, so they’re already getting seen more than once during the broadcast – running order probably isn’t going to help or hurt them much.  And really, these running order rules only apply when there’s a lot of couples – probably 7 or more, I would guess, as it’s harder for the average person to remember 12 couples doing one dance each during a 2-hour broadcast than it is to remember 6 couples each doing both an individual dance and a team dance in the same time frame.

So there we go – the Heidi & Courtney theory of running order, broken down :-) So please, guys, if you’re gonna argue with us about so-and-so being doomed because they’re dancing first or so-and-so being just fine dancing 3rd despite not having a fanbase – at least read this first, so you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight :-)