‘Dancing With the Stars’ Road to 25 Seasons: Casting Key to Broad Appeal

Pairing celebrities with professional dancers in a competition series may not be unique to “Dancing With the Stars” — after all, the show itself is a reformat of BBC’s popular “Strictly Come Dancing,” which is heading into its own 15th season. But the success “Dancing” has seen for its production company, BBC Worldwide Prods., as well as its network, ABC, most certainly is.

In its 24th season, “Dancing’s” premiere drew more than 12 million live and same-day viewers and averaged more than 10 million viewers per episode. “It’s among the most-watched shows in all of broadcast television, and as the audience gets more and more splintered every year, that becomes more and more valuable to us. That’s really the lifeblood of our business,” says Rob Mills, ABC’s senior vice president of alternative series, specials and late-night programming.

Now about to celebrate the launch of its 25th season, “Dancing” is also a global brand. BBC Worldwide Prods. has sold the “Dancing” format license to more than 50 countries, most recently Brazil. Additionally, the franchise boasts a live tour and will soon introduce a “Dancing With the Stars Junior” series. Matt Forde, exec VP at BBC Worldwide, considers “Dancing” to be right alongside “Doctor Who” and “Top Gear” as the company’s major brands.

“It’s just massively appealing to a broad audience,” Forde says. “I think dance is universal, and it is a top-of-the-class entertainment show.”

“Dancing” has won 15 Emmys since 2006, including reality competition host for Tom Bergeron, whom executive producers Joe Sungkur and Ashley Edens call integral. “Having the wit and humor of Tom at the helm — along with his easy chemistry with the judges, Erin [Andrews, co-host] and celebrities — is a huge component to what makes the show flow so smoothly,” they say.

But expectations for the show were modest at the start. Sungkur, who was working on “Strictly” for the U.K. and came to the U.S. for “Dancing’s” first season, credits then-ABC execs Andrea Wong and John Saade with “taking a gamble” on the show. “We thought it would be a short-run summer show,” Sungkur says. “It wasn’t until we booked Evander Holyfield that the network was secure enough to go ahead and put the show on.”

The casting has therefore become key to “Dancing.” It is the ever-evolving group of celebrities who go on aspirational journeys and learn new skills that not only wipes the slate clean each season, offering fresh challenges for the producers and the professional dancers, but also allows the audience to connect with the show on a deeper level.

“It’s people’s backstories — people’s lives — that drive a lot of interest, and we take a lot of time and care to think about who has an interesting story that people can relate to,” Forde says.

The casting also allows the show to “cater to all four quadrants” of an audience, notes Mills. While in the early days the series booked a lot of nostalgic stars from golden age TV and sports, “of the moment” favorites and those who have unique human interest stories began to take precedence in more recent seasons. That variety of talent allows the show to be “shared generationally,” which is important to its longevity.

“We’ve always strived to be the type of show that the entire family can sit down and watch together, and to be a positive influence on a Monday night,” Edens says.

“Dancing” also consistently pushes boundaries when it comes to style and size of its weekly performances.

“Our team makes sure these performances can stand alongside performances you see on award shows so we can stay competitive and keep pushing ourselves,” Sungkar says.

While expectations for “Dancing” have already been exceeded, the team behind the show is clearly ready to raise the bar even higher. “It’s constant reinvention, creativity, and all of that,” Forde says. “Now it’s about building the brand around the show and building activity around the brand 52 weeks a year, finding new ways to continue to bring it to the audience that loves it.”

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