ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For people who love big TV talent competitions, starting this week, you can double your pleasure. "American Idol" and "Dancing With The Stars" are both on the air. "Idol" is TV's most popular program. "Dancing With The Stars" is the only show that could stand a chance of beating it in the ratings.

But there's a problem, says critic Eric Deggans. "Dancing With The Stars" is having trouble delivering on the fundamental promise of its title.

ERIC DEGGANS: Can "Dancing With The Stars" survive without, well, stars? We saw these danger signs three weeks ago when the network broke into a broadcast of "The Bachelor" to introduce its new contestants.

(Soundbite of TV show)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: And now, live from Hollywood, ABC's "Dancing With The Stars" new cast revealed.

DEGGANS: They showed off the guy who replaced Adam Carolla on "Loveline."

(Soundbite of TV show)

Mr. TOM BERGERON (Host, "Dancing With The Stars"): "Loveline" lover boy Mike Catherwood.

DEGGANS: The dude who used to star in "The Karate Kid" movies.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Ms. BROOKE BURKE (Host, "Dancing With The Stars"): Ralph Macchio.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #2: Whoa.

DEGGANS: Sugar Ray Leonard, who retired from boxing when "Seinfeld" was on the air.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Mr. BERGERON: And let's bring out the rest. Also competing on this season of "Dancing" from the E! reality show "Kendra," bunny next door...

DEGGANS: And the show's real superstar attraction, former "Cheers" star Kirstie Alley.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Mr. BERGERON: Kirstie...

Ms. KIRSTIE ALLEY (Actress): Yes, yes. Hi.

Mr. BERGERON: We've asked you to be on before. Why now?

Ms. ALLEY: Why? I don't know. Pass that to someone else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERGERON: Ooh.

Ms. ALLEY: Bam.

DEGGANS: Maybe that's why some cynics have called this season Dancing With The D-Listers.

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

First, most stars who succeed can actually dance, and they have a bull's-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 quite 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" or "Entertainment Tonight."

Ms. NIECY NASH (Actress): How do I win over the judges and get them on my side?

Mr. DONNY OSMOND (Singer): Well, one thing that we did was I kissed the judge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEGGANS: 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.

And to see another big problem, just watch the rehearsal videos.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #3: Damn.

Unidentified Woman: Uh-huh. Now, let's work on doing it correctly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #3: That wasn't right?

Unidentified Woman: No. It isn't.

Unidentified Man #3: Didn't look right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

DEGGANS: The biggest names seem to be the worst dancers, which puts them in danger of leaving the party early. Like Kirstie Alley, who spends a lot of time falling on the ground because she's tired.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. MAKSIM CHMERKOVSKIY (Dancer): Our first dance is the cha-cha.

Ms. ALLEY: That's good because I can count to three. Cha-cha-cha.

Mr. CHMERKOVSKIY: But it's actually not to three. It's to four.

DEGGANS: Last year, "Dancing With The Stars" offered a strong challenge to "American Idol's" status 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.

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

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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