LONDON — Many BBC exports have set the pulses of international broadcasters racing over the years, but few have enjoyed the firepower of “Strictly Come Dancing” — or “Dancing With the Stars” as it’s known in the U.S.
Thirty-one countries have now bought the show, which — according to several reports in the U.K. media this week — is now ranked as “the world’s most-watched” TV program.
Precisely how such a phenomenon is calibrated is unclear, but what is beyond doubt is that “Strictly” has sashayed across the global stage and looks set to keep on dancing in primetime schedules for some time to come.
Like with so many breakout hits, few could have predicted “Strictly Come Dancing” would click in its own backyard, never mind in India or China, where the program translates as “Miracles of Dance Moves” — or indeed across the Atlantic.
Launched on the BBC’s flagship web, BBC1, in the spring of 2003, the show seemed oddly out of step with the then-prevailing cultural wind.
That, however, was precisely the point.
At the time, mean was in vogue, as evidenced by the buzz surrounding “Big Brother” and the admittedly hilarious “The Office.” Ballroom dancing, on the other hand, was about as old school as cassette tapes.
But the BBC needed a heavy hitting Saturday night entertainment show and came up with the idea of a celebrity-laced dancing format derived from “Come Dancing,” a perennial light entertainment amateur dance contest first broadcast on the Beeb in 1949. This smallscreen sea of sequins, much loved by the parents of baby boomers, was finally belatedly axed in 1998.
Its reappearance, albeit in modified form, hosted by veteran U.K. TV entertainer Bruce Forsyth, was not instantly regarded as a big overseas earner by the sales teams at BBC Worldwide.
“I would like to say when I first saw it I thought ‘absolutely,’ but I can’t honestly say that,” Worldwide’s formats topper Colin Jarvis admitted recently. “It was bringing something that was family-orientated back, and we thought the market was ready for that and we thought it had promise.”
Inevitably, securing a U.S. sale would prove crucial in the path to world domination. Thanks to a somewhat reluctant Andrea Wong, ABC bought and aired “Dancing With the Stars” in 2006. When the show proved popular in the world’s toughest TV market, other webs across the globe began to pile on.
In Blighty, season six of “Strictly” is well into its stride. Helped by acres of newsprint and Web space devoted to the celebrity contestants, the show regularly achieves audience shares of around 40%.
The show’s co-host, Forsyth, is a spry octogenarian. He began his showbiz career as a variety performer in the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era, and much of the show’s success in Blighty is due to his instinctive rapport with the audience.
In the studio, Forsyth is the complete pro, having been a mainstay of TV entertainment shows since the 1950s.
Whether “Strictly” will prove as durable is unlikely. But the show’s global success ought to inspire the BBC to create other international hits.
If this program can take off, given its inauspicious beginnings, maybe a BBC world-beating drama is in the cards. Just don’t set it in a dance school.