"The Internet chatter was deafening," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University "This was a vintage example of how the Internet can become this enormous community for discussion."
At issue: The surprise win by Kelly Monaco, an actress on the ABC soap "General Hospital." Monaco and her partner Alec Mazo faced off on Wednesday against "Seinfeld" actor John O'Hurley and his partner Charlotte Jorgensen. Many predicted that the latter pair, who earned consistently high marks from the judges all season, would nab the title.
When they didn't, a flood of critical posts hit the Web. "I think it's totally unfair to John and Charlotte, who did a much better routine from beginning to end," read one post on ABC's official "Dancing with the Stars" message board. "They're the winners as far as I'm concerned."
"Dancing with the Stars" waltzed its way up to No. 1 ratings this summer, with some 22.4 million television viewers watching the finale of the six-week series.
"That's huge," said Nielsen Media Research spokesman Matt Tatham, describing Wednesday's viewership, particularly at this time of year. That's almost as much as the first " " finale, which took place in September, he said.
As of Friday afternoon, more than 43,000 posts had been made to the Dancing with the Stars message board. Many on that board and elsewhere around the Web said they felt O'Hurley and his partner were the clear winners and questioned the legitimacy of the judges' perfect 10 scores for Monaco in her final dance, despite the mistakes she made. Someone even posted an online petition to ABC executives, signed by many others, criticizing the program and the outcome, among other things.
Winner still has plenty of fans
"Can't believe I spent so much time getting involved with it, and rooting for the other dancers. Then the worst ones win," the letter read.
Not all the chatter was negative. Many felt that the spunky Monaco, who now has at least one new fan Web site, deserved to win because of her determination in coming from behind. "She busted her butt with real work and it paid off," one viewer wrote in a post.
ABC, which had no official comment Friday on the online petition or the viewer accusations, isn't allowing any more posts to its message board after 5 p.m. Friday. The board will remain up in a read-only mode until the next installation of the show.
"Stars" had a solid six-week growth pattern for ABC, giving the network a 70 percent increase over its performance in the summer of 2004 in adults ages 18 to 49. The show's success was a surprise to industry watchers such as Thompson, who, after seeing "cheesy" promos for the show, was convinced the networks were "bankrupt" of any new ideas.
But the show's smooth execution, refreshing sincerity and 1950s flavor ended up appealing to viewers ages 3 to 90, he said. "People have such an appetite for shows the whole family can watch."
The Internet only fueled the fervor, and the surprise ending didn't hurt either, he added.
"What's amazing is that the day of a major terrorist act in a major Western city you had tens of thousands of people writing about how in the world John O'Hurley lost 'Dancing with the Stars,'" Thompson said, noting that that doesn't mean people thought the show was more important than the bombings. "It's OK to let yourself get into something. It's entertainment."
Even judge Bruno Tonioli participated online with his own blog on the series. The show, modeled after the international series "Strictly Come Dancing," paired six stars with professional dancers to compete in a wide range of ballroom dances, from the waltz to the samba. One couple was eliminated each week through a scoring process that equally weighed viewers' and judges' votes. What made the scoring somewhat confusing, however, was that the viewers vote was a week old by the time it was added to the judges' scoring.
Reuters contributed to this report.