Dancing With The Stars

Tom Bergeron felt the pressure. So did Brooke Burke.

After Dancing with the Stars' surprisingly strong Season 10 — highlighted by beating American Idol in the ratings for the first time — the co-hosts are well aware that the season will be tough to follow, let alone top.

"I think it surprised even us how strong we came out the gate last season and how well it held," Bergeron tells TVGuide.com. "It sort of became the man-bites-dog story because Idol was having the problems they were having. We hit No. 1 a few times, which was the story of the season. We had a dynamic cast, lots of buzz with Kate [Gosselin]. [Season 11] had to deal with the long shadow that that one cast, and given that, I think we met the challenge."

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Rather than trying to duplicate last season's recipe for success, producers mixed up the casting process, tapping celebrities with no dance backgrounds. For the first time in a few seasons, there is no pre-season front-runner like Season 10 champ Nicole Scherzinger or Season 9 runner-up Mya. "Last season was very strong, but I think everyone would admit that the Achilles' heel was that it kind of looked obvious where it was heading [with Scherzinger winning]," Bergeron says. "I think this season, they've managed to avoid that. I think they've done an admirable job of mixing it up with veteran names, a couple of head-scratchers, a few left-field picks."

The Season 11 roster: Michael Bolton (who "needs to" dance to one of his songs, Burke says), Brandy, Margaret Cho, Rick Fox, Jennifer Grey, David Hasselhoff, Florence Henderson (the "covert Cloris Leachman," in terms of potential raunchiness, Bergeron says), Disney star Kyle Massey, Bristol Palin, The Hills' Audrina Patridge, Jersey Shore's Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino and Kurt Warner.

"What I love most about it is that it's very unpredictable," Burke says. "I asked everybody if they had any dance experience and they all said no, so it'll be an even playing field. I think it's more exciting to have an even playing field and to watch everybody develop, succeed and struggle. It's also more fair. In the past, people would have dance experience and you would single them out right away, but I love this year that we have no idea how well anybody is going to do. I did feel pressure to top last season, but now looking at this cast, it was cast very smart, and I think we'll be fine."

The default "front-runner" would be Grey, if only for Dirty Dancing, but Bergeron and Burke agree that it's unfair to hold the erstwhile Baby Houseman to high expectations since dancing in a film is very different from dancing live.

Producers had pursued Grey for "numerous seasons," Bergeron says. The actress almost joined last season until, as she recently revealed, pre-season medical tests showed she had thyroid cancer. "She rather kindly says we saved her life, which I think is a first for our Mirrorball show," Bergeron says.

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Although Grey doesn't have formal dance experience, it's hard to deny that her Dirty Dancing days will give her a little bit of an edge. But that is no different than the mental advantage athletes have, Burke says. "I think you'll see that from Kurt and Rick. I love that we have two big athletes from two of the biggest sports in the country. We've never had that before in one season: basketball vs. football," she says. "Their focus and competitiveness will help them. It's like entertainers have an advantage because they can turn it on when it matters."

Burke, who won Season 7 with Grey's partner, two-time champ Derek Hough, expects Bolton, Brandy and Hasselhoff to handle the pressure of performing live with aplomb, which is more than she can say for Palin.

"I feel for Bristol because as a new mommy, I know that she has a lot going on in her life and she is the one contestant who doesn't have any entertainment experience," Burke, who also hosts TV Land's She's Got the Look, says. "I think this will be more shocking for her than any of the other contestants. But you never know. That might be an advantage for her."

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Bergeron says the 19-year-old daughter of Sarah Palin could be the Kate Gosselin of Season 11 in terms of buzz ("We'll see about the dancing"). ABC has taken flak for casting Palin and Gosselin from some fans and critics who say they aren't true stars. But, as both Bergeron and Burke point out, you can't deny that they're well-known.

"As far as reality TV, I saw a quote from [executive producer] Conrad [Green], which I agree with, that said when we first started, reality shows weren't at the level they're at now," Bergeron says. "I have to admit I watched Jersey Shore for the first time this summer with my daughters. I watched the first one and went, 'What?!' Then I said, 'Is it on again? Oh, good, it's a marathon! Let's watch it!' Kate's show is another good example of a show that has achieved a sort of tabloid omnipresence. From that standpoint there's a certain demographic appeal to going [with] those people. The totality of the cast wouldn't be reality people, but I wouldn't want to see any one field be the whole cast. I think to not treat reality shows with some interest would be foolish."

The biggest X factor lies in the voting. "Reality stars' fan bases are more unpredictable than [those] of actors, singers and athletes, so we'll see," Burke says. Viewers, she warns, should also never underestimate the fan base of a tween star, like that of Massey. "My little girls are so excited to see him," the mother of four says. "All I'll say is the year I competed, my 8-year-old was voting for Cody Linley [who finished in fourth], not mommy! Every week until about midseason when I really started to kick it up a notch, she voted for him. She very sweetly asked me if it was OK and I said sure, of course! But I was like, 'Boy, I better be good to get some votes from her.'"

Among other changes this year: The set, at one point, "will look quite different," Bergeron teases. But the celeb-aquarium, last season's big addition, isn't going anywhere.

"I've been pushing for a whole season shot in black and white, but they won't go for it. But then again, it would just be darker shades of gray with all the spray tans!" Bergeron, who also hosts America's Funniest Home Videos, jokes. "I think the changes they're planning are all great. And I think any show, whether it's premiering for the first time or has been on for a long time like us, unless you're stupid, you're always concerned about being interesting, being surprising and not resting on your laurels. Everything I've seen indicates they're fully cognizant of building on the momentum that we established last season."

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Bergeron, however, does hope one thing stays the same.

"I would be insulted if Maks [Chmerkovskiy] doesn't manhandle me this season," he says, referring to the pro's habit of smacking his butt after he and his partners get their critiques. "It's actually not so much as by Maks, but by his partners. Mel [B.] was the first time. She started sliding up my side and I remember breaking into a sweat. Now, the gauntlet's been thrown down. Bring it on!"

Season 11 of Dancing with the Stars premieres Monday at 8/7c on ABC.