Imagine a celebrity edition of Big Brother on CBS—and also Dancing with the Stars on CBS. Neither happened, of course, but they are related: A failed attempt to cast a celebrity edition of Big Brother led a CBS network executive to reject Dancing with the Stars when it was being pitched to networks.
While the show is based on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, a celebrity ballroom dancing competition, it was pitched in the U.S. before that series ever aired, and then after being rejected, was pitched again.
CBS is one network that passed, and its reason was Big Brother.
That’s according to Nancy Daniels, currently TLC’s general manager and president, who told the story of losing the show during her appearance on The Jay and Tony Show Show Podcast. During the episode, she also talks about passing, at TLC, on Married at First Sight, which became a hit for FYI and then A&E, plus backlash to the Duggars incident last summer.
How CBS lost Dancing with the Stars
Daniels worked at CBS first as director, and then vice president, for alternative series development between December 2003 to June 2007. She’d been brought in by one executive, who left shortly after she arrived said she “was thrown into a very big position that, to be quite honest, I wasn’t ready for,” working for Les Moonves, though she also called that on-the-job training “a cool experience.”
“We had just gone through an experience, when I was there, of trying to cast a celebrity Big Brother. We just couldn’t get the caliber of celebrities that anybody felt like would be worthy of a celebrity Big Brother.
And Les had been very outspoken, like, We’re not going to do it for this level of celebrity. And then along came Dancing with the Stars, which was called Strictly Ballroom or something in the UK. So it was just like, ballroom dancing? And it’s like D-list celebrties? They’d never go for that here. And I passed.
And look at it: it’s become a huge thing. To be honest with you, I should have walked down the hallway and walked into Les’ office and talked about it with him. And if he had passed on it, it would have been his decision and it would have been fine. I was taking what I learned from past decision-making and applying it to something which I shouldn’t have done.”
At this point in the conversation, Tony Marsh asked Daniels, “But did Les suddenly then, a year or two later, see it on ABC and go, ‘What the fuck?'”
Daniels said, “Yes, of course he did,” and told Moonves, “Yes, it had come to me, and we had just gone through the Big Brother celebrity thing, and the celebs were not that caliber, and I passed. I owned up to it—what else am I going to do?”
Interestingly, Jay Blumenfield added, “I saw a copy of that [Strictly Come Dancing pitch] tape when it was going around, and it was terrible.” Daniels added, “I do feel in my heart of hearts that the people above me would have passed, but I never let it get there, and that was my mistake.”
Other networks passed on DWTS, too
Daniels wasn’t alone: ABC’s former reality executive John Saade said in a 2010 Reuters interview that the first sizzle reel “was everything you feared the concept would be: fairly stiff ballroom dancing. Everybody had the same reaction we had—very quaint, very cute, very British—but not a show anybody would watch. We just didn’t see it.”
Networks rejected it. After the show aired in the UK, it was pitched again; US networks passed again. Season two of Strictly Come Dancing debuted with high ratings, though, and the BBC tried yet again.
Another former ABC reality executive, Andrea Wong, told Reuters, “Everybody had passed on the show — frankly, including us. I was explaining to him all the reasons I didn’t think it would work: It would skew too old, ballroom dancing is not a tradition in the United States.”
She agreed to watch an episode, however, and Saade, who worked for Wong at the time, said, “Our entire department sat down to watch it. Even though we didn’t know any of the celebrities or the dance styles, it was really compelling. It was like the Olympics: By watching the show, you become an expert in professional ballroom dancing.”
And Wong said, “We couldn’t take our eyes off of it. Nobody wanted to fast-forward. At end of the episode, we looked at each other and were like, ‘Are we crazy?’ We wanted it.”