Television

Can 'Dancing With The Stars' Survive Without Any Stars?

Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio (right) dances with his partner, Karina Smirnoff, in rehearsals for the new season of ABC's Dancing With The Stars, which returns Monday night. i i

hide captionKarate Kid star Ralph Macchio (right) dances with his partner, Karina Smirnoff, in rehearsals for the new season of ABC's Dancing With The Stars, which returns Monday night.

Rick Rowell/ABC
Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio (right) dances with his partner, Karina Smirnoff, in rehearsals for the new season of ABC's Dancing With The Stars, which returns Monday night.

Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio (right) dances with his partner, Karina Smirnoff, in rehearsals for the new season of ABC's Dancing With The Stars, which returns Monday night.

Rick Rowell/ABC

For people who love to vote in big TV talent competitions, this week double delivers. American Idol is in the thick of its live performance shows and Dancing With The Stars comes back with its 12th season. This round of Idol competitors has a lot of singing talent, but my big question is this: Can Dancing With The Stars survive without, well, stars?

We saw this coming three weeks ago, when ABC broke into a broadcast of The Bachelor to introduce its new lineup. They showed off the guy who replaced Adam Carolla on Loveline, the guy who used to star in the Karate Kid movies, long-retired and completely-out-of-the-spotlight boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard ... and the show's real superstar attraction, Kirstie Alley. Some cynics have called this season Dancing With The D-Listers.

Still, Dancing With The Stars has long been a critic-proof success for ABC, a gooey collision of mid-level fame and sideways soap opera set to a dance beat. And there are a few reasons why it's been working.

First, most stars who succeed can actually dance, plus they have a bulls-eye aim at the program's core fans: middle-aged women. Marie Osmond, Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi fit that bill nicely.

Next, the show has a serious connection with gossip magazines and tabloid TV shows. Past contestants like Donny Osmond and Niecy Nash often talk it up on The Insider and Entertainment Tonight, interviewing each other or giving commentary. Last season, tabloid fixtures like Jersey Shore's Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino and Bristol Palin kept the show in the headlines for weeks. But this year's Dancing cast seems a little light in the gossip department. Hugh Hefner's ex Kendra Wilkinson may spark a few rumors, but the guy from Loveline and a kiddie star from Bratz: The Movie? Not so much.

In fact, there's a lot missing this season compared to the past. No senior citizens as cute mascots, no politically connected stars, and no straight-up comedians like Margaret Cho or Jeffrey Ross.

There's one more danger sign that you can see if you go online to watch the rehearsal videos. The biggest names seem to be the worst dancers, which means they might get kicked off early. Consider Kirstie Alley, who spends a lot of time falling on the ground because she's tired.

One upon a time, Dancing With The Stars looked like a strong challenger to American Idol as TV's most-watched show, but with a bunch of marginal celebrities stumbling in rehearsals, this season may be one long struggle to deliver on dancing, stars or much of anything else.

Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

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