Why this year’s Strictly Come Dancing line-up is actually a really smart move

Some fans have been distinctly unimpressed by the roster of celebrities on show this year - but there's clever thinking behind the BBC's strategy, says Paul Jones

Strictly Come Dancing - Main of 2018 contestants

This is the worst Strictly Come Dancing line-up in history. I don’t know half these people. Whoever booked this lot should be embarrassed.

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That’s what plenty of Strictly fans are saying about the latest group of celebrities set to strut their stuff on the BBC’s shiny-floor flagship this autumn.

You can’t argue if some people say they’re less excited than they might be at the prospect of a new series of Strictly but when it comes to who’s been signed up and why, I think there’s actually a pretty shrewd strategy at work here, and it could pay dividends in terms of viewing figures.

What Strictly’s new casting director has done brilliantly is to make sure that each of the celebs has the potential to bring in an audience of their own and that between them they cover as many different demographics as possible.

Don’t know Ranj Singh? This Morning viewers do, he’s the resident doctor on the show. A certain generation of kids do too – and their parents – he was a regular on CBeebies for three years. And if you were at Pride in Liverpool this year, or know someone who was, you might well be aware that he led the parade. That’s stay-at-home parents (not to mention students), children hitting Strictly-viewing age and a section of the LGBTQ community, all covered in one stroke.

How about Joe Sugg? A YouTube star on primetime national television? Why not? His videos regularly get upwards of 10 million views, which these days is more than most TV shows (with the exception of Strictly itself). And anyone with teenage children will know how long they spend watching YouTube compared with actual television. Some of them also listen to Capital FM, where another contestant, Vick Hope, co-hosts the daily breakfast show.

Stacey Dooley and Katie Piper’s star credentials have been called into question, but people of a certain age whose TV interests lie beyond the shiny-floor shows know they’re Bafta-winning and Bafta-nominated documentary makers. And those people aren’t necessarily your heartland Strictly viewers. Maybe this year they will be.

Charles Venn was a new name to me – not, as I’d hoped, the inventor of the Ven diagram, but in fact “maverick nurse” Jacob Masters on Casualty. I don’t watch it but several million people a week do, 50 weeks of the year. Perhaps they’d like to watch him on Strictly too.

As always, sports fans are catered for, by cricketer Graeme Swann but also by Lauren Steadman, Paralympic medalist, who – regardless of whether they knew her before Strictly – is likely to inspire viewers when they see her take on the added challenges of dancing with a disability.

Stand-up Seann Walsh could bring in fans of the comedy circuit – people who might sometimes be a bit cynical about a show like Strictly – while Ashley Roberts and Faye Tozer tick the pop star box: a former Pussycat Doll and a member of Steps, who’ll be fondly remembered by teens of the early noughties. Lee Ryan does the same, as one quarter of boyband Blue (whose dance moves generally extend to leaning in time with the music) but as an ex-EastEnder he could also be a draw for soap fans.

Danny John-Jules provides the prospective double whammy of intriguing sci-fi nerds (not a group you’d immediately associate with Strictly) who loved him as the appropriately light-on-his-feet Cat in Red Dwarf, as well as those who’ve enjoyed him in gentle crime drama Death in Paradise, one of the BBC’s big hitters.

Newsreader Kate Silverton and Susannah Constantine, one half of What Not To Wear stars Trinny and Susannah, should resonate with a certain generation too – and at this point it will be the Joe Sugg fans asking “Who?”

That’s a lot of boxes ticked, and a lot of potential new Strictly viewers keen to see how their celebs will do.

And it’s got to be more effective than trying to produce a line-up consisting entirely of ‘household names’. Because, when you take a step back, you realise that whether someone is or isn’t a household name depends a lot on the household you live in – and whether you spend more of your time in front of the TV in the living room, on a laptop in the bedroom or out doing something that, god forbid, doesn’t even involve staring at a screen.

Of course, this isn’t new territory for Strictly – a look back at recent line-ups suggests producers have for a while aimed to cover as many bases as possible. But this year that seems like a more well defined strategy than ever before – and increasing the extent to which you target distinctive groups means it’s inevitable that fewer of the celebs will, on their own, have such broad appeal as in previous years.

So what about the Strictly heartland? Won’t having a significant number of stars whose names they may not know alienate that core family audience (whoever they are)?

I don’t think so. Apart from the fact that, between them, a lot of families will know most of the names, and can introduce them to each other, Strictly fans aren’t going to stop watching – it’s the show and the tradition they enjoy; the warm, sparkly Saturday teatime routine as the evenings draw in; it’s about getting to know the stars they don’t know and finding out more about those they do.

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And, who knows, this year they might just have a few more family members joining them in front of the telly.

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