HOLLYWOOD — Tom DeLay may be a wild thing on the dance floor, but when it comes to boosting ratings, he seems to have two left feet.
The former Republican congressman was supposed to spice up this season of "Dancing With the Stars," but it hasn't worked out that way. In fact, the dance-competition show, a bulwark of ABC's schedule, is shambling through its worst season since it premiered in the summer of 2005.
DeLay — who created a mild sensation during premiere week when he and partner Cheryl Burke did the cha-cha to "Wild Thing" — dropped out last week because of injuries, joining Debi Mazar, who was voted off. That will leave this season's fate in the hands of remaining luminaries including Donny Osmond, Kelly Osbourne and Melissa Joan Hart.
The ratings pose a worry for ABC, which has been helped through some difficult times by "Dancing." Last year, when executives brought back several second-season scripted series that tanked, the ballroom dance-off helped keep ABC competitive overall — in fact, the network was ranked No. 1 among young adults at this point in the season.
Now, ABC is locked in a virtual three-way tie for first with CBS and Fox, and further declines for the show could spell real trouble. Even though the network has seen some encouraging signs with new comedy series "Modern Family" and "The Middle," the unexpected problems for "Dancing" are creating headaches.
All series suffer viewership erosion over time, of course, and compared with most prime-time shows, "Dancing" still pulls enviable numbers, with an average of 17 million viewers, according to the Nielsen Company. But that's a dip of 13 percent compared with the same period last year. Among adults ages 18 to 49, the viewers advertisers care about most, the show has slipped 19 percent, to a 3.8 average rating.
During fall 2007 — crowned with highlights that included Osmond's sister Marie passing out as the judges critiqued her samba —"Dancing" leaped to its most-watched season, averaging 21.7 million viewers. And in fall 2006, the show high-kicked to a 5.8 rating among young adults. (Those record figures, however, include DVR viewing as long as one week following the initial broadcast; those statistics are only just starting to roll in for this season.)
So what happened? Neither executive producer Conrad Green nor an ABC executive would comment, according to a network spokeswoman. Privately, ABC officials concede that the competition, particularly from Fox's hit medical drama "House," is much stronger this year.
But many analysts and fans believe the cast — which hews to "Dancing's" time-tested formula of faded stars, pro jocks and bizarre wild cards — simply hasn't gelled this year. The inclusion of DeLay, a fiercely partisan former House majority leader who left Congress following indictment on campaign-finance charges in 2005, touched off a flurry of amused interest from the Washington Beltway commentariat.
Many ordinary viewers, however, probably had no idea who he was. According to Diageo/Hotline poll taken in February 2006, 24 percent of respondents said they had never heard of DeLay — and that was at a time when his name was in the news much more than it is now.
Other cast members, including Osmond and Hart, likewise owe whatever renown they still possess to achievements years since passed. Hart's "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" ended its ABC run nearly a decade ago (although it later ran on the WB).