Can "Dancing With the Stars" top the Bristol factor?
That's the challenge the popular ABC competition now faces after a widely discussed 11th season that had much of the public marveling -- not always in a complimentary way -- at the staying power of contestant Bristol Palin, daughter of former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
As the show's 12th round begins Monday, March 21, it's a real question whether any of the new contenders can inspire anything that even approaches that buzz. Among them: boxing icon Sugar Ray Leonard; actors Ralph Macchio (the original "Karate Kid"), Kirstie Alley and Chelsea Kane ("Jonas"); model Petra Nemcova; and reality show star Kendra Wilkinson.Also: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward; talk show host Wendy Williams; singer-actor-entrepreneur Romeo; WWE veteran/rock star Chris Jericho; and radio personality "Psycho" Mike Catherwood.
In terms of related water-cooler conversation, which arguably hit its peak with the immediately preceding season -- which "Dirty Dancing" alum Jennifer Grey won with partner Derek Hough (who's sitting out the program's new season) -- "Dancing With the Stars" has other situations in its history to point to. Here's a look at several of them.
Season 1 (2005): Actor John O'Hurley ("Seinfeld") had been a favorite throughout the maiden season. When "General Hospital" regular Kelly Monaco was crowned the victor, accusations of unfairness abounded, from charges of ageism to the belief ABC simply wanted one of its own stars to win.
Season 2 (2006): The judges -- Bruno Tonioli, Carrie Ann Inaba and Len Goodman -- took issue with football icon Jerry Rice's continued presence in the contest, since they felt others' performances surpassed his. The public voting process was considered a possible reason he remained, since the phone lines were open from the start of the telecasts, and Rice often danced first.
Season 3 (2006): Country music star Sara Evans bowed out of the competition after six weeks due to her filing for divorce at the time. Also during that season, singer-actress Willa Ford was eliminated in a week when she had finished in first place, according to the judges' scores.
Season 5 (2007): In perhaps the single most-remembered moment of "Dancing With the Stars" to this point, singer Marie Osmond fainted on the air after performing, prompting stunned series host Tom Bergeron to toss to a commercial as soon as he could process what was happening. Osmond had recovered by the time the break ended, and she continued with that night's show.
Also, actress Jane Seymour missed an episode due to suspected food poisoning, and Mark Ballas dislocated his shoulder while doing the cha-cha on a results show. Additionally, Osmond and Seymour each lost one of their parents during the season.
Season 6 (2008): Actor Cristian de la Fuente ruptured a tendon during a performance, and the judges based his scores on what he had done prior to the mishap.Season 7 (2008): When dancer Julianne Hough was taken to the hospital for what was thought to be a stomachache, she ended up having her appendix removed shortly afterward.
Season 8 (2009): Singer Jewel and current "Entertainment Tonight" regular Nancy O'Dell proved they didn't even have to step onto the "Dancing" dance floor to add drama. Both were injured enough in their rehearsals that they had to withdraw before the season began, though Jewel eventually would show her stuff in a results show.
Olympic medalist gymnast Shawn Johnson, who won the contest, was caught up in drama that largely unfolded off-camera. A stalker tailed her to the show's studio lot, and upon his arrest, he was found to have items that strongly suggested a potential abduction. Her family took out a restraining order against him, and he was charged on counts including felony stalking.
Season 9 (2009): Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- a year prior to his conviction for money laundering -- called it a day early on "Dancing" because of full stress fractures in both feet.
Season 10 (2010): Reality show personality Kate Gosselin became a symbol for celebrity dancers who not only didn't fare so well on the show but battled with their professional dance partners ... in her case, Tony Dovolani, who appeared to give up on her after one especially colossal argument during rehearsals.
ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews decided to do "Dancing" to prove she would not be cowed by a stalking incident in which she had been videotaped, while unclothed, through a hotel room peephole. Andrews stated in many interviews that her "Dancing" participation was a message to women about not being victimized.
Season 11 (2010): Controversy built throughout the season because of audience votes that kept Bristol Palin in the competition, though many critics felt she didn't fare as well as others eliminated sooner (such as Brandy and athlete Rick Fox). Jennifer Grey kept up the suspense right to the end, rupturing a disk on the first night of the final performance week and not knowing if she'd be able to perform on the second night. She did, and she won.
Anything can happen, then, when it comes to "Dancing With the Stars." The nature of the show makes it impossible to forecast what will occur ... and ABC is quite content to have that remain the case, as long as people keep tuning into it and talking about it.