Were a lack of ad breaks the reason The Greatest Dancer failed to rock the ratings on Saturday nights?

Simon Cowell and Cheryl looked like a match made in entertainment heaven for BBC1 - so why is The Voice being watched by more people?

Matthew Morrison, Cheryl and Oti Mabuse in The Greatest Dancer (BBC)

BBC1’s new talent contest The Greatest Dancer has failed to set Saturday night alight.

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Despite having the digital kitchen sink thrown at it – behind-the-scenes gossip from the show’s social media page, dance lessons from the captains, and even a podcast hosted by Mollie King – viewing figures have continued to fall.

Having started with a respectable overnight audience of 4.7 million for its opening episode, things headed south, with week two being watched by 4.2 million, and week three just 3.9 million.

Like almost every other entertainment format, though, the real proof of the pudding is what happens when the show goes live. Sadly, rather than getting a ratings boost, ahead of the final The Greatest Dancer pulled in an average of just 3.4 million for its live editions.

On paper, The Greatest Dancer looks like the perfect talent contest. Backed by Simon Cowell, the man who once held a monopoly on Saturday night entertainment, it features numerous trademark Syco-quirks: sob stories soundtracked to Coldplay, tabloid intrigue thanks to Cheryl, and some genuinely talented individuals earnestly craving a chance to impress.

The Greatest Dancer: Oti Mabuse, Matthew Morrison, Cheryl
The Greatest Dancer: Oti Mabuse, Matthew Morrison, Cheryl (BBC/Syco/Thames)

Meanwhile, wisecracking receptionist Amelia Wilson has more than a hint of Tattoo Fixers’ favourite Paisley Billings, and the slightly staged conversations between members of the studio audience – a staple of X Factor and BGT – are reminiscent of another reality winner, Gogglebox.

You might think weaving together the best bits of all these hits would make The Greatest Dancer a surefire success. Instead, it feels more like a Frankenstein’s monster of light entertainment television.

And while it’s true that many entertainment formats are struggling in today’s fragmented TV market, The Voice UK – ITV’s direct competitor with The Greatest Dancer in the Saturday 8pm slot – managed to earn a respectable 4.8 million viewers in the same week as The Greatest Dancer went live for the first time.

With the notable exception of Strictly Come Dancing (which itself took eight years to catch up with ITV’s The X Factor in the ratings war), the BBC has continued to struggle when it comes to a winning Saturday night talent show formula.

So why is a broadcaster as skilled as the BBC, coupled with some of the biggest production companies in the UK, failing to find a sustainable show outside of the autumn Strictly season?

Strictly Come Dancing 2018 final

It could be that while Strictly’s (and to a lesser extent Dancing on Ice’s) popularity initially suggest audiences have an appetite for dance shows, subsequent attempts to repeat their success have failed to capture viewers’ imaginations (see So You Think You Can Dance?, Got to Dance and Dance Dance Dance).

But maybe it’s a problem peculiar to the BBC. Maybe it’s simply about adverts.

A hefty chunk of TV talent show can easily feel bloated in the Saturday night schedules, especially when, unlike commercial broadcasters, the BBC allows for no natural breaks.

Unlike other genres, ad breaks are often a bonus for entertainment formats: they allow for a better rhythm, slicing each episode into manageable chunks. A pause in the programme smooths over the sometimes awkward audition stage of a talent competition, allowing fans to absorb each act and avoid potentially jarring shifts in tone when the show flits from a daft audition to a heartfelt one.

Ad breaks are also beneficial during the live stages, offering valuable time to set the stage for the next act (not to mention for viewers to make a cup of tea or order a pizza).

Instead, the BBC is forced to fill those valuable two to three minutes of breathing space with pointless pieces to camera, resulting in all but the very best talent contests feeling saggy and overlong.

The Greatest Dance, Cheryl (BBC)

That’s not to say that every entertainment show needs the benefit of an ad break – Strictly has become an entertainment giant without being rudely interrupted by the Go Compare man.

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But the lack of a tea break may be one of the reasons we find the BBC’s latest sugary Saturday night talent show just a little too hard to swallow.


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