Odds were against show becoming long-running success
When “Dancing With the Stars” premiered on ABC as a six-week summer replacement series on June 1, 2005, everyone involved — the network, the producers, host Tom Bergeron — thought that, if they were lucky and the ratings were decent, they might give it another go the following summer.
Remember, this was before “Real Housewives” roamed the land. Jon and Kate had their eight, but no one knew about it. An American version of a British unscripted series featuring celebrities trying to ballroom dance didn’t have “hit” written all over it.
Five years later, “Dancing” has climbed near the top of the ratings with its glamorous, Hollywood spin, tapping into the cultural zeitgeist with a canny mix of celebs, athletes and politicians.
“It’s funny when you’ve got Margaret Cho and Bristol Palin on the same show,” says “Dancing” exec producer Conrad Green, who has been with the program since its inception. “Tony Blair would call what we have ‘a big tent.’ ”
Adds ABC senior veep of alternative series, specials and latenight John Saade: “It is that broad-based, broad-entertainment show that the entire family can watch.”
Over 200 episodes, the producers have tinkered with the show, moving the backstage area closer to the studio audience, accenting the set and, in the case of a rare misstep, expanding the cast in season nine. (“That first week we were on for five hours, and even my own family was saying, ‘You know, enough you,’ ” Bergeron remembers.)
But the guiding philosophy has remained constant — you don’t mess with the competition itself.
“We really had a sporting event that would keep you coming back,” Saade says. “Once you start responding to the competition, you’ve got an anchor; you’ve got a reason to come back season after season.”
A freewheeling approach extends to the pairings, scoring and mix of celebrities, which now reflects the pop cultural prominence of reality TV stars. Because “Dancing” doesn’t audition contestants, preconceptions about the celebrities are often tossed aside after the season debut, when the dancers reveal their talent (or lack thereof).
“It’s a bit of a crapshoot until that first show, and then you can start to think how the season might pan out,” Green says. “People believe you can manipulate every moment of TV, but it’s actually a much more honest and simple process than that.”
With the show’s broad appeal, “Dancing” has the luxury of cherry-picking celebrities from various niches and mashing them together. Green says celebrities view “Dancing” as an opportunity to counteract preconceptions, citing Jerry Springer as one successful in redefining his image.
“The audience is often pleasantly surprised,” Green says. “When (‘Jackass’ stuntman) Steve-O came on the show, he was astonished by the new fans he was winning.”
Adds BBC Worldwide exec Jane Tranter: “You want a cast that gets people talking, people who sneak up on you. You think, ‘Oh my God, Bristol Palin has legs.’ It becomes part of the national conversation.”
And, somehow in a polarized political and cultural landscape, that conversation seems to unite the show’s diverse audience rather than divide it.
“Once they come on the show, all the baggage they bring with them gets left behind,” Bergeron says. “It was like a Fellini block party to have the Osmond family sitting next to the Osbourne family. Watching them cheer their respective dancers on … that’s something no bong pipe in the world could give you.”