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'Dancing With the Stars' fires band leader Harold Wheeler

"Dancing With the Stars" Credit: AP

Harold Wheeler, the longtime band leader for "Dancing With the Stars," was fired by the show Monday, earning both the show and the network a rare rebuke from the American Federation of Musicians. ABC did not name a replacement, while trade reports late Monday indicated that the show, which has relied on Wheeler and his 28-piece orchestra since the first season in 2005, could in part rely on canned music -- or "pre-existing sound recordings," in the parlance of the trade. 

Ray Hair, chief of American Federation of Musicians, said in a statement: “People who love Dancing with the Stars also love the superb performances of the orchestra because it is such an integral part of the show. The tight, elaborate musical productions that catapulted the show into the top 10 in 17 countries can’t be duplicated by recordings and a small combo. Viewers, whether they are young or old, will reject that as artistic fraud.”

Wheeler, 70, has a long and distinguished career in Hollywood music circles, beginning in the early '60s as musical director for Burt Bacharach. He -- and his players -- are an integral part of the show: Their sound is a versatile pop one that ranges across genres but is clearly most comfortable with the oldies/goldies standards that have tended to characterize so many "DWTS" numbers over the years and which obviously appeal to the audience. 

Which may be the problem here: That audience, which is very nearly the oldest in all of television, topping out at an average age of 62.1. Last fall, "DWTS" had the second-oldest average audience on television, which for ABC represents a massive sales problem. While "DWTS" may still be hugely popular, it is not hugely popular among young viewers. 

Which of course is an understatement: People under 30 don't even know what "Dancing With the Stars" is. 

In his statement, Hair continued: “It’s not like ABC and Disney don’t have any money and can’t afford an orchestra. It’s about the insatiable thirst for profits at the expense of music, art, and those who create it. Firing the band, using recordings, and hiring fewer musicians won’t boost ratings. It will kill the show.”

ABC and BBC Worldwide released this statement: "Our talented band leader and composer, Harold Wheeler, will not be joining us for season 18 of 'Dancing with the Stars.' Since season one, Harold and his band have performed brilliant live music in our ballroom for our dancers and the American viewers at home. We are grateful to him and his band for their amazing work and years of collaboration. We wish him the best of luck."

"DWTS" returns March 17.

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