LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - In 2004, the BBC rummaged through its library and dusted off “Come Dancing,” a ballroom-competition series that launched in 1948 and ran for nearly five decades.
The British state broadcaster planned to revamp it into a celebrity edition titled “Strictly Come Dancing.” Before its U.K. premiere, producers flew across the pond to shop the concept to U.S. networks. Armed only with a pitch and some generic footage, they received a less-than-enthusiastic response.
Executive producer Conrad Green: The BBC rang me and asked if I wanted to do “Dancing.” I thought it was such a strange idea. Strange, but brilliant. Dance hadn’t been on TV in a featured way in years, and it’s one of the oldest forms of human entertainment.
Talent agent Greg Lipstone: I was representing the BBC. I thought “Dancing” was incredibly interesting because it worked on so many levels. It wasn’t just a dance exhibition; it was about music, fashion and performance. It was clearly something different.
ABC programing executive John Saade: It was pitched to (ABC alternative series/specials senior VP) Vicki Dummer and I with this sizzle reel of the best ballroom dancing they could find, but it was everything you feared the concept would be: fairly stiff ballroom dancing. Everybody had the same reaction we had -- very quaint, very cute, very British -- but not a show anybody would watch. We just didn’t see it.
Green: What weren’t their concerns? “American Idol” was definitely helpful since you didn’t have to explain the format. But a lot of people tried to make a lot of Idol-like shows and failed, and people had started to think Idol was nonrepeatable.
Lipstone: Everybody turned it down. (They all said), “Ballroom dancing won’t work on American television.”
The first season of BBC1’s “Strictly Come Dancing” aired from May-July 2004. Producers pitched the show to U.S. networks again and again were rebuffed. Even with Fox’s “American Idol” rocking the Nielsens since 2002, executives were convinced ballroom dancing was too passive and old-fashioned. When the BBC’s second cycle of “Dancing” launched in October to mammoth ratings, producers tried to persuade U.S. executives to watch an episode of the format they had already turned down.
Green: It was a show people didn’t want, but Richard refused to give up. He was quite insistent.
Former ABC alternative programing chief Andrea Wong: I remember I was having this drink with (executive producer) Richard (Hopkins). Everybody had passed on the show -- frankly, including us. I was explaining to him all the reasons I didn’t think it would work: It would skew too old, ballroom dancing is not a tradition in the United States. He said, “Please take a leap of faith; you’ve got to try it.” He asked me to watch the show. I took the DVD into the office the next day.
Saade: Our entire department sat down to watch it. Even though we didn’t know any of the celebrities or the dance styles, it was really compelling. It was like the Olympics: By watching the show, you become an expert in professional ballroom dancing. At the same time, you’re comparing your reaction to the dance versus the judges’ reaction. And then there’s the emotional component of whether you like the dancers that prompts you to vote and try to save your favorites.
Wong: We couldn’t take our eyes off of it. Nobody wanted to fast-forward. At end of the episode, we looked at each other and were like, “Are we crazy?” We wanted it.
The programmers pushed ABC’s top executives to take a chance on the show, including then-entertainment president Stephen McPherson and Walt Disney Co CEO Bob Iger.
Saade: It wasn’t like Steve said, “I believe in this 100%, go do it.” He was like, “I believe in your passion -- if you believe in this, go do it.” Bob was one of the biggest supporters of the show since he had been in the U.K. and saw an episode.
Wong: The great thing about Steve was he always trusted his people. He responded to passion.
Saade: Compounding all this was the amount of press coming out of the U.K. about the show. There was this voting controversy going on. Sitting on the plane, there were three articles in the Daily Mail about the show.
Other factors played a role, too. VH1 made a competing offer for the format, and an Australian version of the series -- titled “Dancing With the Stars” -- debuted to strong ratings. ABC gave the ballroom-dancing show a modest initial order: six live episodes, cast-contingent, planned for summer.
Lipstone: It debuted in Australia, and it was working and that helped -- it gave everybody more comfort. It’s not just a U.K. phenomenon.
Wong: The way we convinced everybody was to make it cast-contingent: “If you don’t like the cast, you can pull the plug.”
But it was difficult to convince celebrities to risk their most valuable commodity -- their reputations -- by ballroom dancing on live TV for a panel of judges. Executives started the search by asking stars like Pamela Anderson (who finally agreed to appear on the show last season), then scrambled to find just about anybody.
Wong: It was hard to get the first cast because we had no proof of concept in the U.S.
Saade: We loved that initial cast, though obviously we were going for a slightly different cast initially. We were going through name after name.
Green: You can never start these shows from scratch and have great names. We approached loads of people. A lot of the people who subsequently appeared on the show said “no” in Season 1.
Wong: I remember being on the phone with (former Bachelorette Trista Sutter) and others trying to convince them do it: “This is a huge hit show in the U.K., it’s a great opportunity to amplify your career or move it in different direction, people love watching people take risks, and you become a hero to people for doing it.”
The casting of heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield was a turning point. Holyfield and Sutter joined actress-model Rachel Hunter, singer-actor Joey McIntyre, former “Seinfeld” actor John O‘Hurley and actress Kelly Monaco as the show’s first cast.
Green: We weren’t happy with the cast until we got Holyfield. That was what made me think we got a headline: -- Evander Holyfield is going to ballroom dance; I got to watch that.
Saade: Holyfield had a certain stature and was somebody whom you would never expect to see ballroom dancing. It’s captured the absurdity of the show -- a professional boxer dressing up in sequins and tuxedo and ballroom dancing.
Wong: He really caused men to say, “Maybe I should take a look at this.”
Saade: We had one person left to go. We were two days past deadline when (casting director) Deena Katz was able to land O‘Hurley.
ABC and producers began preproduction. Tom Bergeron and Lisa Canning were tapped as hosts.
Bergeron: My agent called and said, “ABC wants you to host a summer series, and you’re gonna do it -- it’s live TV.” I‘m all, “What aren’t you telling me?” She says, “It’s a big hit in England.” Right, right. “You have to promise you’ll look at the DVD of the British version before you say no.” OK, what is it? “It’s a ballroom-dancing competition.” I said, “Why don’t you just get me an infomercial, and we’ll just call it a career?”
Green: We knew we needed to pace it up, get more stuff happening faster (compared to the British version). Adding Tom as a host helped enormously. The fact it looked like “The Lawrence Welk Show”, like a ballroom from the 1950s, helped too. It didn’t look like an Idol wannabe.
Saade: We thought of every obvious dumb title you can think of. We had the concern that “Dancing With the Stars” hit it so hard on the head that it may be a turnoff. At the same time, the name was simple and explained the premise as well as anything.
Wong: One of the biggest challenges was how to promote the premiere -- there was no footage (the show is live). We had to cut promos out of British footage.
As a live show with an orchestra, “Dancing” wasn’t cheap. But the cost was a minor concern compared to the mounting industry perception that the show would prove to be an embarrassing flop.
Wong: Nobody thought it would work. They were licking their chops. We said, “Look, it’s not going to be a middle-of-the-road show. This was going to be a spectacular success or noble failure.”
Bergeron: I was sold on it being six weeks of retro live TV. I thought at best it might come back for six episodes every summer.
Lipstone: In the industry, people thought it was incredibly risky.
Green: Everybody thought it would fall on its ass. I heard an executive who passed on it at another network said, “If that works, we should all resign.”
On June 1, 2005, the ”Dancing With the Stars“ premiere drew 13.5 million viewers -- the biggest summer debut for a reality series since ”Survivor“ five years earlier.”
Green: We knew it worked when Holyfield got told off by the judges.
Lipstone: It was instantaneous. The minute that it hit the air, you saw the reaction.
Saade: The reaction was everything we hoped. It was bemused and confused, but passionate. A lot of, “What do think you’re doing?” and “This is the weirdest thing I’ve seen on TV.” It was the biggest sigh of relief when the fast nationals (ratings) came out at 7:15 a.m. (the next day)
Although there were some hiccups...
Green: (During the season), Kelly (Monaco) had her wardrobe malfunction live on the air. Her bra popped off, and she spent most of the dance holding it up. After that, they were particularly vigilant on the five-second delay and instituted that women had to wear pasties. A lot of characters in the ballroom scene were eccentric, too: A staffer held our wardrobe hostage for days after she took it home. We sent a producer to stake out her hotel and get it back. We had to get the dancers to bring them their own clothes from home to the finale in case we couldn’t get their costumes.
ABC renewed ”Dancing“ for a second season, and the show quickly became a power player. Moved from summer into the season, the cast was expanded, a second night was added for a results show and the network began running the series in the fall and spring. Five years later, ”Dancing“ remains one of the most-watched shows on TV.”
Saade: There was more fear going into the second cycle; we didn’t know if it was a flash in the pan or going to sustain. And getting celebrities -- after 12 cycles, it hasn’t gotten any easier. But there’s an energy that runs through every single episode. Everyone who’s been on the show says it’s a blast. It’s that father-daughter dance at a wedding; it’s the senior prom.
Wong: It sort of grew from there. It catches fire and builds every season. It was one of those sets that made you smile. I used to love being on that set.
Green: We created our own world right from the outset. We got just the right level of irony: not being too pompous and embracing the inherent stupidity of what you’re doing. It’s helped the careers of a number of people, and it occupies a warmhearted spot. A lot more people are doing ballroom dancing now. We don’t profess to be an important show, but we make people happy. If that’s the show’s legacy, that’s a pretty good legacy.