TV nets, marketers rush to be lords of the dance

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John O'Hurley will be taking ballroom-dancing lessons this fall-not as part of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," but for fun, with his wife, Lisa. And he's far from alone.

Hundreds of thousands of other Americans are signing up to cha-cha, spurred on by hits like "Shall We Dance?," "Mad Hot Ballroom" and, of course, "Dancing with the Stars."

"The joke I make is that I studied classically as an actor and as a singer-what was the one thing I forgot to learn?" said Mr. O'Hurley, the runner-up on ABC's surprise summer hit, who has a book deal, a recently released album and, now that he can dance, an upcoming role on Broadway in "Chicago." "This show was God's great practical joke."

If "Dancing with the Stars" was God's practical joke for Mr. O'Hurley, ABC-and the $500-million-a-year dance-instruction industry-is laughing all the way to the bank.

New student enrollments at Arthur Murray International's 155 U.S. franchises are up 50% this year over the same period in 2004. The Coral Gables, Fla.-based company has taught 450,000 private lessons in the first 32 weeks of the year, 20% more than last year at this time. At Fred Astaire Dance School, Web traffic is up 35%. "Business was good, but this has made it better," said John Kimmons, exec VP of Arthur Murray.

"Dancing with the Stars" marked the most-watched summer series debut in five years-since CBS bet on "Survivor." The 13.5 million viewers watching the June 1 premiere grew to 15.7 million by June 15 and 22.4 million by the finale July 6. And the network will reprise the show with a dance-off, airing September 20 and 21, thanks to controversy surrounding the outcome, in which Kelly Monaco from ABC's "General Hospital" beat Mr. O'Hurley.

GOOD DEAL

According to media buyers, ABC asked about $100,000 a unit early on in the show's run, tripling the price to about $300,000 by the finale. Still, that price is low for a blockbuster. Consider the $750,000 Fox asked for a 30-second spot in "American Idol," which drew 26 million to 27 million.

Nobody saw "Dancing with the Stars" coming, explains Jason Maltby, president and co-executive director of national broadcast at MindShare: "By the time they saw they had a hit, there was no marketplace." ABC is bringing the show back for a second season in January.

"ABC is the new poet laureate of ballroom dancing and around that all of this stuff is coagulating," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "It was a trend waiting to be rediscovered in this culture of repackaging and nostalgia."

The 2004 movie "Shall We Dance?" starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, and this summer's indie hit documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom" were the first indications of the potential for this kind of programming. This summer, Fox rushed out its "American Idol" spinoff, "So You Think You Can Dance." In October, Discovery Networks' TLC will premiere "Ballroom Bootcamp," a reality competition that takes average Joes and turns them into star dancers under the tutelage of professionals and in February 2006 New Line Cinema will release "Take the Lead," which stars Antonio Banderas as Pierre Dulaine, a dance instructor in "Mad Hot Ballroom." Heck, even Patrick Swayze, the original Dirty Dancer, last week premiered "One Last Dance," which is being released on DVD.

"Whenever Madison Avenue and Hollywood try to feed us something, we buy into it and believe it's good for us and something we want to do," said Ken Richards, publicity director for Dance USA, national governing body for dance sports in the U.S.

Mr. Richards' Dance USA title is a volunteer one. By day, he's the marketing manager for Pohanka Automotive Group, a dealer group in the D.C. metro area. He's constantly picking up allusions to ballroom in marketing. "We hear tango music, we hear rumba, we hear cha-cha-there's a lot of it out there," he said.

In December Cadillac used a ballroom-themed commercial to introduce the STS model. And, more recently, SCA is using the tango to market its Serenity brand of incontinence pads. Mr. O'Hurley, no stranger to Madison Ave. thanks to his earlier exploits as the J. Peterman character on "Seinfeld," reports being courted by "quite a few" marketers who would like to use his newfound grace to help sell products.

To be sure, most suspect the dancing craze won't last forever. Every programming trend seems to have a life cycle, says Geoff Robison, senior VP-national TV for Los Angeles-based Palisades Media Group. "Young audiences will move on, there'll be a new craze," he said.

Dance fever

* ABC’s "Dancing with the Stars" was the most-watched summer series in five years, drawing 22.4 million viewers to the July 6 finale. Prices tripled to $300,000 by the final episode.

* Arthur Murray schools have seen new-student enrollments jump 50%. Private lessons were up 20% in the first 32 weeks of the year.

* Marketers are waltzing in with ballroom-theme ads for Cadillac and Serenity. A new dance movie, "Take the Lead" is coming from New Line Cinema and cable’s TLC plans a new series, "Ballroom Bootcamp."

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