Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV
16 September 2021

How Strictly Come Dancing became the most reliable talent show on TV

A careful balance of well-loved routine and quiet reinvention means BBC One’s flagship talent show remains one of the few guarantees to draw a strong audience week after week.

By Nicole Vassell

Despite continual reminders of how uncertain the world is, there are three constants we can rely on at the beginning of autumn: the days will get shorter, the leaves will get browner, and a new series of Strictly Come Dancing will air.

Since 2004, every September or October has seen the start of a fresh run of the dance competition programme, ushering a new batch of celebrities on to our screens. Every week, millions of households will watch couples – one a professional dancer, one a famous non-dancer – attempt routines from a wide range of genres, until the winning pair is handed the glitter-ball trophy. On Saturday (18 September), BBC One’s flagship talent show will return for its 19th season, starting with the hotly anticipated launch night where the celebrities are paired with their professional dancers.

Did the producers who revived the format from its 20th-century civilian version Come Dancing have any idea what entertainment behemoth they were unleashing? Seventeen years since its first episode, the formula has been recreated in 50 countries and remains one of the few guarantees to draw a strong and enthusiastic audience week after week, despite live TV losing its long-fought battle to streaming and on-demand programming. Public enthusiasm for Strictly shows no signs of waning.

But why? How has it managed to stay alive when similar TV talent programmes have fallen by the wayside?

Take its former broadcast rival, the X Factor, which also launched in 2004. ITV’s landmark singing competition aired in the same time slot as Strictly on a Saturday evening, ran for a similar number of weeks and heavily competed for the public’s attention. However, from the early 2010s onwards, while the X Factor’s hold on the nation loosened, Strictly’s remained strong. After its 15th series aired in 2018 – garnering an estimated average of 6.19 million viewers per episode – X Factor boss Simon Cowell announced that the programme would take a hiatus. In July 2021, producers confirmed that the show would not return at all.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Meanwhile, average viewing figures for a Strictly Come Dancing series have not dropped below ten million since 2010. According to fans, one reason for the continued success of Strictly compared with other talent efforts is its ability to balance routine and familiarity with something new. 

Apart from the presence of Bruce Forsyth as host (he retired from the programme in 2014 and died in 2017) and design elements of the ballroom, archive episodes from the first series bear a strong similarity to its current-day offering. On the surface: glitter, bright colours, large grins and meticulous adherence to the rules of each dance. Plus, the simple premise has remained the same: non-experts learn a skill and steadily improve.

Its rigidity provides a framework that fans can come back to: comparing the execution of one style with previous attempts, chuckling along with running jokes, and spying for the personal chemistry that might intimate the Strictly curse – an illicit romance between professional dancers and celebrities.

Content from our partners
Why modelling matters: its role in future healthcare challenges
Helping children be safer, smarter, happier internet explorers
Power to the people

The judging panel remained steady for years. As of 2021, Craig Revel Horwood is the only judge remaining from the first season, but original judges Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli remained until 2016 and 2019 respectively. (Arlene Phillips left after the 2008 run.) Judges that have come into the show have been a combination of past contestants (Alesha Dixon), professional dancers from the cast (Anton Du Beke, who joins the panel full-time this year) and established names in the field (Darcey Bussell, Shirley Ballas and Motsi Mabuse). And with clear technical definitions of achievement, viewers can become judges from the comfort of their sofas.

The areas in which the programme has innovated have only bolstered its current standing. From adding dance styles to the roster – street, contemporary and jazz became style options in series 16 – to integrating chart hits by way of the in-house band, it insists that formal dance has a place in contemporary times.

In 2020, the first same-sex Strictly pairing appeared, as Olympic boxing champion Nicola Adams danced with professional Katya Jones. This year, chef and TV presenter John Whaite will be the first male celebrity to partner with a male professional dancer, showing that the programme’s decision to include same-sex pairings was more than a one-off; it was a signal of a commitment to including this as standard for series’ to come.

According to a YouGov poll, 29 per cent of all viewers strongly support the inclusion of a same-sex partnership on the show, the highest proportion of these voters being aged between 18-49. Although 26 per cent of over-65s “strongly oppose” this inclusion, it’s unlikely those grumbles will dent the viewership: the first live show of 2020, which introduced Adams and Jones, raked in 10.1 million viewers – 1.6 million more than the year prior. 

Part of this viewership boost could be attributed to people being encouraged (and then mandated) to spend more time indoors than usual. Yet it could equally be a sign of the programme attracting new viewers, keen to witness the making of history.

Vicky Leyland, the founder of a 50,000 person-strong Strictly discussion board, is a dedicated viewer who’s watched from the very start, and fully embraces its same-sex couplings. “I think it’s very important,” she explains. “The show has got to keep up with the times. It makes sure the show is accessible to everybody, and that they feel included. It only adds to what makes this a show for all.”

A key pillar in Strictly’s continued success is how cruelty has never been essential to its watchability. Recent years have shown a marked difference in the way that viewers react to the treatment of reality TV contestants. The open denigration of hopeful people on screen – such as Simon Cowell calling a group of X Factor hopefuls “the before, during and after of Weight Watchers” – is no longer culturally accepted. Softer programmes hold up better in the 2021 moral landscape.

Although the pantomime villain-esque critiques of Revel Horwood are a staple, the programme is founded on the idea of people who are not usually involved in the professional dance world “having a go”. A low score might bruise the ego of the competing celebrity, but is not equivalent to Cowell shattering a teenager’s dreams of stardom by calling them hopeless, or Louis Walsh calling an auditioner’s popstar hopes “mission impossible” on the basis of her being “very overweight”.

At times, the competition even feels second in importance to the personal development that the contestants leave with. Of course each celebrity will learn a new skill, and appearing on the programme is a guaranteed profile boost that can lead to lucrative opportunities. But Strictly’s intention is more about having fun and achieving something out of their comfort zone – relatable goals for anyone watching at home.

In many ways, the programme’s success is contradictory – vintage, yet forward-thinking; familiar, yet different with each cast; strict, while not taking itself completely seriously. But its core aim is straightforward: to put on a great show. As long as the producers keep sight of that essential factor, viewers will “keep dancing” for years to come.

[See also: BBC drama Vigil is brutal, bonkers and chilling]