"Dancing With the Stars" has had plenty of ups and downs over the years, but in recent seasons, the ballroom bash has been more of a bust. Now it seems the powers that be behind the series are serious about making changes and trying to kick off season 18 on the right foot.
The question is: Will it work?
Tiny tweaks have been de rigueur on "Dancing" of late, so some fans might feel like this is the same old song and dance they've seen before. But that's not really the case this time.
Rather than just moving the judges' table from stage left to stage right or installing a light-up, reconfigurable staircase, for season 18, it's obvious that producers paid attention to at least a few longtime issues that have vexed viewers.
Tired of co-host Brooke Burke-Charvet's by-the-numbers banter? ("How did that feel?" "That's right, Tom ..." "Vote for your favorite!") Well, now she's gone. Rather than the woman some "Dancing" fans took to calling the "Brooke-bot," former contestant and EPSN reporter Erin Andrews will take her place.
While Andrews still fits the lovely-tall-female-presenter-with-long-flowing-locks mold — the co-host standard set in stone since Samantha Harris joined the show back in season two — Andrews brings with her a background in journalism and an ease with interviews.
"I think Erin’s going to be great," pro Mark Ballas told TODAY. "She’s used to dealing with celebrities."
Five-time champ Derek Hough added that while he was fond of Burke-Charvet, "I’m also excited for Erin to be on the show. She fits right in."
While only time will tell if she proves to be a perfect fit, the hire at least proves that producers are finally tuned in to the kind of changes fans have been clamoring for.
Further evidence of that point comes in form of the return of a fan-favorite pro Maksim Chmerkovskiy. Dubbed the bad boy of the ballroom, Chmerkovskiy sat out the last two seasons of the competition, and vocal viewers turned to social media to complain about his absence (and cheer for his brief returns, once as a guest judge and once as a one-time trio partner). His invitation to return to the show now is another good sign that producers are eager to please.
Also overhauled is the old in-house cover band, better known as Howard Wheeler and his (28-piece) orchestra. Ray Chew, the former musical director for "American Idol," will lead a new group of hit-fakers on the show soon, presumably bringing a smaller ensemble and more modern take on the same-old-same-old.
"Ray Chew is amazing," Ballas assured us.
Another change in the works signals that all these switcheroos aren't just a season-starting effort to draw viewers. There's even a plan for after the action is well underway. Once the pros and their celebrity partners are bonded in their ballroom efforts, a new twist will allow viewers to tear them apart in favor of new dance-floor matchups.
"My initial thought was, 'What, now?'" hoofer Sharna Burgess said. "To be honest, 18 seasons in, it’s time to try something a little different. We’re not going to know if it’s great or horrible until we try it."
Longtime pro Cheryl Burke seems a little more confident about how the twist will play out — at least from the viewers' perspective.
"It’s good TV," she said of the move that's sure to deliver drama. "I’ve always suggested it. I think it’s great that the audience gets involved."
But another winning pro isn't so sure the dancers themselves will be entertained.
"I think there’s going to be a lot of questions and a lot of angry people when we get to that point," Karina Smirnoff told TODAY.
There really seems to be only a few parts of the show that produces didn't feel the need to tweak. Host-with-the-most Tom Bergeron isn't going anywhere — thankfully — and the time-honored trio of judges consisting of Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba will remain unchanged (though that wasn't the original plan for the season). Also the same? The caliber of celebrity, and that might be the one big misstep for season 18.
While there are some standout names in the motley crew of athletes (including Sochi skating stars Meryl Davis and Charlie White) and retro celebs (such as Billy Dee Williams, Candace Cameron Bure and Danica McKellar), there's still the usual assortment of "whos?" and "huhs?" rounding out the mix.
But overall, there's no denying that the upcoming season stands a real shot at turning the "Dancing"-dud dilemma, and the lower ratings that came with it, around.
"You have to give credit to the producers, that they know what they’re doing," pro Smirnoff insisted. "Some of the changes are shocking, but if we allow the producers to be creative and embrace their changes, I think it’ll be great."
— Additional reporting by Michael Maloney.