'Battle of the Blades' picks up speed

CBC hockey player ice dancing series a ratings hit

TORONTO -- Talk about TV that taps into the zeitgeist.

"Battle of the Blades," a new reality competition series that has hockey heroes mastering graceful ice dance routines with figure skating champs, has become a ratings winner for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Think Canada, and ice naturally comes to mind. And the CBC has scored as hockey-mad Canadians watch retired NHL greats get schooled in leading and lifting -- and hopefully not dropping -- former Olympic female figure skaters.

No knock on Kristy Swanson and Bruce Jenner, but "Battle of the Blades" exec producer John Brunton insists the CBC series is no "Skating With Celebrities," the 2006 Fox on-ice take of ABC's hit "Dancing With the Stars" series.

Brunton said the Canadian ice dance competition series enlisted athletes who know how to stay steady on their skates.

"When Canadians watch figure skating, they want to see a high level of quality," Brunton, a veteran producer of 1990s U.S. and Canadian network figure skating shows, said.

The alchemy is getting former NHL tough guys to shed their sticks and pucks and glide like swans across the ice to earn votes and avoid elimination.

"On our show, you skate to center ice in darkness, and the lights come up and you need to remember your steps, do them in time to the music, and you don't have other people on your team to remember all that -- it's just you and your skating partner. It puts guys out of their element," Brunton said.

And the CBC saw ratings gold after "Battle of the Blades" debuted Oct. 4 to 1.95 million viewers on its first Sunday performance night, according to BBM Nielsen data.

That represented the second-highest bow for an original Canadian show, just behind the 2.17 million audience the CBC drew with its first episode of "Little Mosque on the Prairie" sitcom in 2007.

The second performance episode last Sunday night drew 1.5 million Canadians, indicating the TV series still has skates under it.

And a reality TV show that turns hockey heavyweights into Lycra-clad dancers has spawned impressive co-viewing. The performance nights have so far broken down between 57% female and 43% male viewers, while the Monday night results episodes divide 60% women and 40% men.

The series is welcome to Brunton, whose Toronto-based production shingle Insight Production Co. had earlier breakout success with "Canadian Idol" for FremantleMedia before CTV canned the competition series after six seasons.

Brunton also produced "Deal or No Deal Canada" for Global Television, licensed from Endemol USA, and "Project Runway Canada," the Canadian format of the U.S. series from Miramax and the Weinstein Co. But the veteran TV exec knows it's the shiny floor shows like "Canadian Idol" and "Battle for the Blades" that draw industry attention. And Brunton may just have a Canadian format winner on his hands. Broadcasters in other hockey-mad countries are moving to cash in on the success of "Battle of the Blades," Brunton said.

New York-based Jane Rimer, a former FremantleMedia North America exec now working for Insight, spearheaded conversations at MIPCOM with broadcasters in Scandinavia, Russia and other cold-winter markets about acquiring the format rights.

Brunton expects to announce deals shortly.

"Matts Sundin in Sweden, he played in Toronto. Those kinds of iconic (NHL) stars will help the franchise," he said before going rink-side for another "Battle of the Blades" episode Sunday night.
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