There's something different about Dancing with the Stars this season — and it's not just the stage.
"There's no lightning rod! No one [is] controversial, so everyone can stop freaking out!" Tom Bergeron tells TVGuide.com.
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After nabbing such divisive figures as Kate Gosselin, Bristol Palin, Chaz Bono and even perceived ringers like Nicole Scherzinger in the past few seasons, executive producer Conrad Green and casting director Deena Katz went with a low-key approach for Season 14. They also had a theme: nostalgia. The new crop includes the old-school likes of Little House on the Prairie's Melissa Gilbert, Jaleel White (aka Urkel), soap star Jack Wagner, the Empress of Soul Gladys Knight, and 18-time Grand Slam champ and tennis legend Martina Navratilova.
"There was a real effort to evoke in our fans a feeling of nostalgia. It's a very feel-good season," Bergeron says. "There's a lot of charisma in this group, and I really like them. Within the office, I think there's a sense that it's gonna be a lot of fun. It's important to mix it up. Having a controversial cast member is another arrow in your quiver and you can always use that when you think it's a good idea. I think coming off a season or two where we had used that arrow ... that it's smart to take a breather, take a detour that in some ways harkens back to the earlier seasons."
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But that warm and fuzzy feeling isn't echoed by a lot of fans. Instead, they are complaining about the lack of star power this season. Others hitting the parquet are Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver, Disney star Roshon Fegan, The View's Sherri Shepherd, musician Gavin DeGraw, Extra's Maria Menounos, telenovela actor William Levy and opera singer Katherine Jenkins, who has performed on the show. Bergeron, however, pays no mind to the chatter.
"There's a certain drumbeat that I hear every season," he says. "I often say that a Dancing season consists of three distinct points. The first is: I wonder who's gonna be on Dancing with the Stars. The second is: Oh, they're gonna be on Dancing with the Stars?! And the third is: I love so-and-so on Dancing with the Stars! So when I hear [complaints about the cast], I'm like, 'Yeah, OK.' I'll hear it next season too. It's the same ol', same ol'."
Once fans see everyone's "infectious" personalities, Bergeron is certain they'll be singing a different tune. "I think they're gonna respond really well," he says. "I gotta tell you, all the women on staff are very excited about William Levy. I think he's about to pull a Gilles Marini and break out. ... Maria Menounos is not only good, but she has a laugh that sounds like she mugged Fran Drescher. You'll hear it! I think we might turn it into a drinking game, but we may not survive. Martina's very funny and she's good. Roshon has a great energy. You're gonna really warm to a lot of people."
That confidence doesn't mean Bergeron's not concerned about how fans' current frosty sentiments toward the so-called bland cast might affect ratings. The logic, for any reality show, is that controversy will pique viewer interest. So does that mean the opposite is also true?
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"I would think anyone who does anything is always concerned about their customers," Bergeron says. "When you take a different approach, there's always a curiosity of how it's going to be received. But the playing field is different this year. NBC has The Voice and they're opposite us, so that'll be interesting. I like it. I think there's room enough for a bunch of us to be successful. I tend to be the cockeyed optimist, but we'll see."
The stiff new competition from The Voice, which has been dominating Monday nights, is also why Dancing is going the throwback route. In that vein — and much to Bergeron's delight — the show will revert to its old stage, just one season after redesigning the set.
"They had raised it last season and we lost a little intimacy with the audience. I'm a happier host now. Sometimes it's the aesthetics that make me the happiest!" he says. "We also did a raised, circular stage for Acoustic Week, and we had what I call the decapi-cam, which was on a cable that swooped down. I'm not a big raised stage fan. I think there's something cool about the couples dancing by the audience's knees. It makes for a more exciting environment, so I'm really thrilled to have that back."
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One thing Bergeron's not thrilled about returning? Maksim Chmerkovskiy's long-standing tradition of pinching his butt, usually with an assist from his partners.
"If Maks had perceived it as a good luck charm, the fact that he has yet to win the Mirrorball should've dissuaded him from that belief," he says. "You can bring this up in print. It's better if you're our conduit and he can see this. Knowing Melissa, my butt is going to get more of a workout. Some of his partners have been more willing, some have been more reticent. ... I think with Melissa, I'm gonna go back to the Kevlar underwear."
Dancing with the Stars premieres Monday at 8/7c on ABC.