'Dancing With the Stars': ABC's Aging Reality Show Tries to Skew Younger With Changes

5:00 AM PST 03/05/2014 by Michael O'Connell

A new co-host (Erin Andrews), a fresh band with more current music and a play to reinvigorate fan voting are all on deck in the franchise's season 18 bid to cozy up to its shrinking demo.

This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In an effort to stem steep ratings declines, Dancing With the Stars is changing its tune. After the move last year to a combined performance and results show failed to give the ABC reality flagship a lift, producers are overhauling the show with more current music, a new co-host in Fox Sports' Erin Andrews and increased audience participation.

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Dancing is still a force in total viewers, averaging 15 million last season, but those viewers are now 62.1 years old, making it the grayest broadcast show not on CBS. In the key 18-to-49 demographic, Dancing hit an all-time low 2.5 average rating last season. The cycle beginning March 17, the first under new ABC reality chief Lisa Berger, is a pivotal one. "The practical reality is that we have to keep engaging with a younger audience as well as our substantial older one," says executive producer Conrad Green. "Obviously life would be easier for us if we were only judged on the sheer scale of our audience."

The play for younger viewers, which saw veteran co-host Brooke Burke-Charvet and longtime bandleader Harold Wheeler axed, hasn't been without strife. The American Federation of Musicians president Ray Hair blasted the decision by ABC and producer BBC Worldwide to drop Wheeler and his 28-member orchestra, describing it as "artistic fraud." The new, smaller band led by Ray Chew will be more focused on current hits -- prerecording the more produced elements in lieu of using costly master tracks. "This was a creative decision to increase the amount of live music on the show," says Green, who maintains Dancing still will emphasize the band. "The way the union responded on this, without ever talking to us, was pretty poor."

Green admits each season becomes more difficult to cast (Winter Olympians Charlie White and Meryl Davis, reality star NeNe Leakes and NHL alum Sean Avery headline season 18). He says new interactive elements are the real draw. Voters will have final say in eliminations, and pairings briefly will be switched halfway. Also, fan favorite Maksim Chmerkovskiy will return after quitting in 2012. Says Green: "Our viewers want to see him competing again."

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