Strictly a worldwide smash

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There was a defining moment for the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing during its glittering tango towards world domination.

The scene was played out not in the corporation's television headquarters in White City, nor Blackpool's gilded Tower Ballroom – the site of so many dancing triumphs down the years. The decision that stamped the show out for international greatness and success was made in the plush Manhattan offices of Andrea Wong.

As vice-president at the Disney-owned ABC network, Ms Wong is one of the most powerful women in television and she came within a heartbeat of passing on this strange, camp Brit format. It was the third time BBC Worldwide bosses had travelled to the US to persuade network chiefs that the American public could be persuaded to love a show about dancing.

"I am fully aware that this may sound like the craziest show anyone in the US has ever heard of," admitted Wong as she finally inked the £1m deal to bring the BBC's unlikely Saturday-evening hit to US screens. In the end, however, she just couldn't resist her famously sure-fire popular instincts. "In a world where it's easier for reality series to imitate than innovate, I just love how fresh this format is," she enthused.

Wong was looking for a show that could punch its weight against Fox's mega-hit Pop Idol – another remake of a British format. At the time, Strictly was pulling in 11m viewers for the BBC and wowing viewers on Australia's Channel 7 as well as in Denmark, where the Prime Minister's wife had taken part.

But there was a brief time when the rest of the world seemed a little reticent to get out of its seat, don its diamante dinner jacket and rekindle its lost love of formal dancing. Since that fateful day, of course, the show hasn't put a foot wrong. Today, Strictly Come Dancing is not only the BBC's most successful export, a franchise worth £60m a year to licence-payers, but according to research by the industry magazine Television Business International (TBI), it is also the world's most-watched television programme, eclipsing US blockbusters such as Lost and Desperate Housewives.

Some 38 countries have signed up to the format. Its appeal transcends culture, creed and class. In a sequin-embossed post-industrial example of the old adage about selling coals to Newcastle, it is a hit in samba-mad Brazil as well as a runaway success in Argentina, the home of the tango, where it has a typically more risqué allure that would no doubt have that old ham Bruce Forsyth reaching for the smelling salts.

China, where it is known under the enchantingly baroque title Miracles of Dance Moves, is negotiating for another three series, and executives in India, home of the world's largest television audience, are planning series three. In the United States, where along with the rest of the world it is marketed as Dancing with the Stars, the show doffs its cap nationwide only to the almighty CSI franchise but still takes top ratings in major cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles.

But if it was Ms Wong who took the show Stateside, it was another female television executive, BBC commissioning editor Fenia Vardanis, who can claim credit for the concept. Now managing director of Splash Media, she recalls the brainstorming session when she first suggested the notion of a celebrity dancing contest. "It was my crazy idea," she says. "People think you get bombarded with ideas but entertainment is one of the hardest areas to come up with them. Expectations are so high, which is why you get so many flops in the process."

It was 2002 and a difficult time for the corporation's entertainment czars. Their most recent high-profile offering, Fame Academy, had been buried under a tide of critical vitriol. "We were looking at areas that hadn't been done before and I just happened to say, 'Dancing ... wouldn't it be fun if we were to do a celebrity dancing show?' It didn't take off immediately. I mentioned it a few times in various meetings and it was not until two or three months later, when we were sitting down scratching our heads thinking that there weren't many ideas coming through for the current commissioning round, that I said it again."

By the time the programme was passed to the BBC's entertainment development team, it was more than five years since Come Dancing had limped off our screens. Having been launched to add a touch of ooh-la-la to the post war austerity of 1949, by the time of its demise Come Dancing had more in common with One Man and His Dog than cutting-edge television. But Vardanis, whose previous credits included Flog It and Escape to the Country, had been sold on the enduring appeal of Baz Luhrmann's cult film Strictly Ballroom.

With septuagenarian comedian and dancing enthusiast Forsyth established in lead presenter's role – recreating a Saturday night tradition not seen since the glory days of the Generation Game in the mid 1970s – it fell to finding a suitable title. The first suggestion – Pro-Celebrity Dancing – was vetoed by BBC One controller Lorraine Heggessey, who would not countenance further use of the c-word, so Strictly Come Dancing waltzed onto the airwaves in the spring of 2003 – a glamorous antidote to the tensions of the post-September 11 world. "I felt like a proud mother who has just let go of her baby for the first time," recalls Vardanis.

The show was an almost instant hit, though some claim it did not really get into its stride until the England cricketer Darren Gough won the grand title in series three, bringing huge numbers of male viewers in for the first time. Colin Jarvis, director of international formats for BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the corporation, admits that he was not immediately struck by the scale of the opportunity. "I would like to say when I first saw it I thought 'absolutely', but I can't honestly say that. It was something that was interesting for us. It was bringing something that was family-orientated back and we thought the market was ready for that and we thought it had promise," he says.

The programme had many strong pillars supporting its broad appeal. There was a feel-good factor; it filled television's glamour vacuum of the time; it bridged the generation gap and it was easy to understand. It was also interactive, gave a viewers a feeling of empowerment and a degree of control over the outcome (though it is not a vote-off show). And it was never, ever nasty.

"Contestants are never ridiculed and they are always seen to try their best. Everyone can sit down and watch it as a family, which you haven't always seen in recent years," says Jarvis.

Still, America proved a hard nut to crack. "People were saying, 'It won't work here,'" he recalls. Eventually the pitch succeeded. When it aired on ABC in 2006, territory after territory began rolling over to sign it up and brought in BBC staff to help them get the show exactly right.

According to Peter White, deputy editor of TBI, the format presented too seductive a proposition for global broadcasters to resist with its endless spin-off opportunities, offers of income-generating interaction and vast audiences. "It can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. The BBC spends a lot of money because it wants it to look good. But it is essentially studio-based, so you can do what you wish. If you want A-list celebrities you can pay for them or if you want to hire a third-rate local comedian you can do that," he explains.

It also entered the global television market place at a propitious time. "A lot more broadcasters internationally now have money to make their own local versions of shows. A few years ago they would have bought the British version and just edited and dubbed it. But because advertising revenues have risen across the world, they can now tailor it for their own audiences. Before it might have been sold to the US but now there are so many more countries making programmes."

Formats have been one of the great success stories of the media age and it is something in which Britain leads the world. The success of home-grown shows such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Idol and Big Brother generated £663m last year.

But surely one day Strictly will take to the floor for a final, wistful dance? Most formats are thought to have a maximum life of 10 years. Now on its fifth series, the end must be in sight? Not according to Jarvis. "It will go on for as long as there are celebrities out there willing to participate. We find more and more people want to be in these shows. Now we don't have to persuade them."

And surely few of them can be as bad at dancing as John Sergeant?

Strictly & Me

Gabby Logan: I loved everything about 'Strictly' – the opportunity to learn dancing from the experts, the glamour, the dresses, the live music and the set. I only did three dances but it was a really empty feeling when I was voted off. I never did it as a career move. I did it as a treat for myself. It was a slightly hedonistic thing to do, spending all that time dancing around in beautiful dresses. I haven't been dancing since – I've got no one to dance with! [Fourth to be voted off in 2007]

Kenny Logan: I was nowhere near as keen as Gabby [his wife] to take part. I was a nervous wreck. Then my confidence grew and I started to enjoy it. I was gutted when Gabby was voted off because there were loads of dancers left who were nowhere as good as her. She was enjoying it so much and I got really annoyed when everyone criticised her for being competitive. When I went I felt like I'd won because I'd got so far, but I knew it was time for it to end. [Ninth to be voted off in 2007]

Mark Foster: I love a challenge and I loved the whole 'Strictly' experience. I did it to let go and try something completely out of my comfort zone, but the first week I wondered what I was doing with myself because I've never been so nervous in my life. I came back from the Olympics on a Monday and started the show on the Tuesday, but if I'd had time I would definitely have had some basic lessons first. [Olympic swimmer, voted out in week six of this series]