• The Hollywood Reporter on LinkedIn
  • Follow THR on Pinterest

How 'Dancing With the Stars' was born

Nobody wanted it. The biz predicted failure. The dramatic creation of ABC's most-watched show as it marks 200 episodes.

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 network 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, BBC Worldwide’s Colin Jarvis and Mike Phillips, executive producer Richard Hopkins and talent agent Greg Lipstone 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.

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 programming executive John Saade: It was pitched 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 programming chief Andrea Wong: I remember I was having this drink with Richard. 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 Disney 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--

-- Annnnnnd that’s all you get for free. I know, we’re acting like one of those sites now. But THR subscribers get 52 issues of our new weekly magazine, daily editon PDF and online access to magazine stories like this one. Subscribe here. For subscribers, the story continues here.