BBC hooks up with ABC to ride the reality wave

Is “Dancing With the Stars” really a Martian landing and “The Lawrence Welk Show” rolled into one? So say the Brits, who tried pitching a Hollywood adaptation of the BBC hit “Strictly Come Dancing” after its 2004 premiere run.

“We were turned down point blank” by potential American partners, says Paul Telegdy, BBC Worldwide America’s exec VP of TV sales, content and production, who came armed with footage of Britain’s celebrity competition in the seemingly lost art of ballroom dancing.

Conrad Green, the British “factual entertainment” pro who eventually became executive producer of ABC’s version, says even the celebrity component didn’t impress in the U.S. “One network president said, ‘If that works, I should resign.’”

The show was so unusual, Telegdy recalls, that a colleague “characterized it as being a bit like watching a Martian landing. You can’t take your eyes off it. There’s nothing else like it.”

And indeed, that’s much the way ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson describes first seeing the British hit: “When I first heard the concept, I was like, ‘Huh?’ But once you saw the actual footage, you couldn’t stop watching. It was so addictive. I think that was a case where (having a finished product to view) really helped so much.”

The British template has been followed almost to the letter by the Alphabet. The glitzy “nightclub” studio set is the same, as is the cushy backstage interview space.

“When everyone else was doing shiny sets and mood lighting,” says Green, “we came in with crushed velvet, almost as if ‘The Lawrence Welk Show’ was re-emerging from our collective subconscious.”

Two of the BBC’s expert judges were imported — Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli, contrasting types who’d developed a crowdpleasing rapport — along with the voice of announcer Alan Dedicoat (who records his work in London).

Changes did get made in transition, with 15 minutes of content per hour excised for commercials. Britain’s four judges became three. ABC host Tom Bergeron employs a quicker wit than the scripted gags of the BBC’s Bruce Forsyth.

And “we felt we needed to build up the drama a bit more, teasing more,” Green says. “Americans are much more competitive. The British celebrities are always apologizing for being competitive, while the Americans are ‘Damn right, I want to win.’” Telegdy describes the changes as “different reveals and different rhythms.”

ABC’s initial six-week run of the retitled “Dancing With the Stars” in summer 2005 was a weekly hour, with that night’s viewer call-in vote added to the following week’s judges scores. The British version took place in a single evening, but America’s sprawling time zones thwarted that here. After “Dancing” proved a summer sensation, ABC’s subsequent fall and spring cycles added a next-night results show (a la “American Idol”). All those seasons have landed in Nielsen’s household top 10.

The series has aired just once a year in more than two dozen other countries, including Australia (its first post-U.K. version), Brazil, Italy, Israel and India. (BBC has aired five seasons, while ABC is in its sixth.) Green reports a Japanese version found less success when “they refused to kick people off, because it brings terrible shame to the celebrity if they get rejected.”

The original “Strictly Come Dancing” also follows the British tradition of airing a stand-alone special at Christmastime, and has even spun off a behind-the-scenes show during competition. At ABC, McPherson cautions, “We don’t want to spread it too thin,” something many believe curtailed the primetime success of another once-potent import, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” McPherson adds, “We really believe in the core product.”

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