The combination of an icy northern Canadian climate and WWII planes doesn’t sound like a hit on paper, but Ice Pilots NWT has been a ratings wonder for History Television in Canada. The Omni Film Productions docuseries about life at Yellowknife airline Buffalo Airways debuted with the biggest audience on a Canadian cable company ever, with 459,000 viewers, and has already been renewed for a second season. Gabriela Schonbach, Omni Film partner and executive producer on Ice Pilots NWT fills realscreen in on the unexpected success.
How did the series come about?
Dave Gullason is the creator, showrunner and series producer and I’m the executive producer from Omni’s side, and we’ve been working together for awhile now. He’s the one who saw an article about these guys in [Canadian newspaper] The Globe and Mail, these people called ‘propheads’ who love old planes. Some of them go to a place in Yellowknife that runs these old planes, Buffalo Airways, so [Gullason] pursued it with Mikey McBryan, who is the son of the founder, Joe McBryan.
Why do you think this series resonates so well with History’s audiences?
It’s about many things: the top gun young pilots, the North, iconic planes and the scope of everyday life with unique characters. I think that Canadians really want to watch a show about their country that is well-made and resonates. It’s being picked up on all sorts of blogs and chat rooms. At the same time, this particular topic does cross borders and we’ve gotten some big response now – pilots and aviation people are a very large and close-knit group, and now we’re getting a lot of requests from the U.S. It’s really funny because they don’t realize that there’s a History Television here [in Canada], as opposed to History Channel [U.S.] so they’re all [asking] ‘Where the hell is this show?’ We’ve all been answering fan mail and on Facebook there are thousands of members all of a sudden. I think there’s going to be an online petition to History U.S. Now that doesn’t mean that it’ll get it, but it’s funny.
Have any U.S. broadcasters expressed interest?
We’ve had a lot of interest from Discovery, National Geographic, History, and Smithsonian but I think they’ve been waiting to see how the show does. And they may feel that they don’t have room for it. It appears to be in the ‘tough jobs’ genre, but it’s really quite unique in that it doesn’t just follow characters, it follows stories for a long period of time. It’s more like a verité style, because we really are hunkering down in this place for a very long time.
Tell me about the website. It holds a lot of content for the viewers.
The most amazing thing is that we were able to get the Bell New Media Fund support for a very large multi-platform component to the series. The main thrust of the interactive site is what we call the story map, which is a place where anyone, not just viewers, can tell their stories. It’s a Google Map overlay where so many stories from the North can come out. You can either write [something], do it through audio, or you can be interviewed and your story will be on the map in the place that it happened. That is a historic legacy that we’re creating outside of the show.
Why is History Television so excited about the ratings?
Because it’s attracting younger viewers and women. They’re just so happy about that. They’re so happy that they’ve ordered a second season.
How does this show fit in the rest of Omni’s catalog?
Omni started in the tradition of social issue documentaries, back with the first Greenpeace film, called Voyage to Save the Whales back in the late ’70s, so we have documentary and drama. On the documentary and factual side, [there is a] tradition of quality, in-depth looks at issues that I think really carries into this particular series.