×

‘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.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • The First -- "The Choice" -

    Sean Penn Drama 'The First' Was 'Unrelatable' to British Audiences, Channel 4 Exec Says

    Channel 4’s director of programs Ian Katz says the British broadcaster has learned a good lesson from the failure last year of its big-budget Hulu co-production “The First” to resonate with U.K. audiences. Speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Katz described the Sean Penn-starring drama about a mission to Mars as a “really classy piece [...]

  • Hugh Laurie

    Hugh Laurie to Star in New BBC Thriller 'Roadkill' by David Hare

    Hugh Laurie, the Golden Globe-winning star of “House” and “The Night Manager,” will play a beleaguered politician in a new four-part thriller for the BBC, “Roadkill,” from acclaimed playwright and screenwriter David Hare. The series is being produced by The Forge (“Collateral”). Laurie stars as Peter Laurence, a charismatic Conservative Party government minister who remains [...]

  • Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth WarrenSecond 2020

    ABC News Sets Moderators, Rules for Third Democratic Debate

    ABC News has announced the moderators for the third Democratic debate, as well as the qualification rules. The debate will be held on Thursday, Sept. 12, and will spill over to Friday, Sept. 13 if more than 10 candidates qualify. The moderating team will consist of chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, “World News Tonight” anchor and [...]

  • James Corden Paul McCartney Carpool Karaoke

    James Corden Got a Little Help From Paul McCartney on His Drive to the Emmys

    Saying “Baby, I could drive your car” has proven to be a very good strategy for James Corden — never more so than when he put Paul McCartney into the highly sought passenger seat. The primetime special “Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney, Live From Liverpool” is a contender in five Emmy categories this year, [...]

  • Starz Logo

    Starz Orders Horror Comedy Pilot 'Shining Vale'

    Starz has put out a pilot order for “Shining Vale,” a horror comedy which hails from “Divorce” creator Sharon Horgan and “Trial & Error” co-creator Jeff Astrof. The prospective series is about a dysfunctional family that moves from the city to a small town into a house in which terrible atrocities have taken place. But no one [...]

  • Bethenny Frankel at the showtime Emmy

    Bethenny Frankel to Exit 'Real Housewives of New York' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bethenny Frankel is stepping away from the “Real Housewives” franchise. Variety has learned exclusively that Frankel is poised to exit Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York” ahead of its upcoming twelfth season. Frankel first joined the acclaimed reality series back when it premiered back in 2008 before exiting the series in 2010 during the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content