The main reason Canadians were flocking to watch this past fall’s Battle of the Blades, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s figure skating competition series with a twist, was neatly summarized in an article from writer Scott Feschuk in the Canadian current affairs weekly Maclean’s. ‘It combines two things Canada loves most,’ wrote Feschuk, ‘hockey and the risk of serious head wounds.’
John Brunton, president and CEO of Toronto-based Insight Productions and co-exec producer of Blades with Insight EVP Barbara Bowlby and sports agent Kevin Albrecht sees some truth in Feschuk’s assessment. ‘You’re not a town in Canada unless you’ve got a hockey rink or a skating rink,’ he says.
The series features professional female figure skaters who are teamed up with ex-National Hockey League players in a competition similar to Dancing on Ice, except in this case everyone is a professional skater to begin with. The figure skaters and coaches attempt, throughout the season, to bring the hockey players up to a figure skating level close to that of the pros, and pull off ice dances that impress the judges.
The first 14-episode season, divvied into Sunday night performance shows and Monday night results episodes, concluded with over 1.7 million viewers watching Olympic gold medalist Jamie Salé and former Edmonton Oiler Craig Simpson take the prize. The October 4 premiere brought in just under two million viewers, making it the second-highest debut for an original Canadian show, behind the 2007 kick-off of CBC sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie.
The series not only drew big audiences for the CBC, which has renewed Blades for a second season, but also got considerable press in Europe and the U.S. Importantly, format discussions are heating up with other territories where skating and hockey are part of the culture. ‘We’ve been flooded by format distributors, by producers, [and] by television stations in all the same countries that will be competing in the hockey tournament in the Olympics,’ says Brunton. He lists off regions such as Russia, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the United States and also areas where figure skating is growing in popularity such as South Korea, Japan and China. At press time, no international deals had yet been announced.
‘We’ve done Canadian Idol, Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader, Deal or No Deal Canada and Project Runway Canada, so we’ve been on the other end of format deals,’ says Brunton. ‘Now it’s a lot of fun to be on this side of that equation with people wanting to buy our formats.’