Just as we enter the last week of competition on ABC's series "Dancing With the Stars" with Jennifer Grey, Kyle Massey and the controversial Bristol Palin as the last celebrities standing, ABC is launching an ice-skating competition series, "Skating With the Stars." And much like its ballroom dancing parent, the spin-off takes six celebrities and puts them through various levels of competitions in the sport with weekly eliminations until there's one deemed the champion.
The celebrities in this first "Skating With the Stars" season are "All My Children" star Rebecca Budig, reality star/entrepreneur Bethenny Frankel, skiing great Jonny Moseley, rock star Vince Neil, Disney star Brandon Mychal Smith and actress Sean Young. Each celebrity will be paired with a skating pro and, much like the ballroom dance version, will learn a routine and be judged for their performance by a panel of three judges - skating great Johnny Weir, the "voice" of figure skating, Dick Button, and renowned choreographer Laurie Ann Gibson. Rounding out the crew is host Vernon Kay and the most decorated American ice dancer in history, Tanith Belbin, will serve as commentator.
To get a peek at the inner-workings behind "Skating With the Stars" before the first competition begins tonight, our Jim Halterman chatted with Executive Producers Izzie Pick and Phil Edgar Jones to see how the celebrities were chosen and just how different (or similar) the format will be in comparison to "Dancing With the Stars."
Jim Halterman: This isn't the first time that celebrities have skated on ice since FOX tried it a few years ago and didn't get past a first season. What are the origins of "Skating With the Stars?"
Izzie Pick: I didn't see the FOX show because it was on when I was on "'Dancing With the Stars" at the time but we're not worrying too much about that. The whole show came about really back in 2004 and it started with "Strictly Come Dancing," which is called "'Dancing With the Stars" here in the US. We made a show called "Strictly Ice Dancing," which was a Christmas extravaganza at the time. We did that because of the success of "Strictly Come Dancing" so really it's a natural extension of "Dancing With the Stars."
JH: What did the celebrities have to possess to get one of the six slots to compete?
Phil Edgar Jones: Ice-skating seems to be a childhood dream for a lot of people. Rebecca Budig, for example, used to ice skate when she was younger and it was a dream of hers to glide across the ice like a fairy princess. Vince Neil used to skate when he was a teenager and he's won medals for it and you certainly wouldn't expect that from a hard-rocking man like him. So, we obviously were enthusiastic about it and wanted some level of experience from one extent or another like dance and a sense of rhythm. They have been training for five weeks with their world-class skating partners. The progress they've made is great and they're all absolutely loving it.
IP: We wanted to come out of the gate with a show where the talent has really gone on a journey and can improve. When you come on "Dancing With the Stars," most of the talent can stand up so they have an advantage. We didn't want to start "Skating With the Stars" with talent who actually couldn't stand up on the ice so we looked for talent that had a passion or excitement or tiny bit of experience either on the ice or roller blading because those two skills are kind of interchangeable. They had to have the confidence to stand up and do basic skating like going backwards and we just took it from there. That was a really great decision because what we've seen is really great progression already and it's so exciting.
JH: How do you pair up the skating experts with the celebrities? Is it personality? Size?
IP: It's a little bit of a mixture of the things you just said. There's the practical direction that we take from size and location is also a good one. We sometimes will think if they are an East Coast-based skater and an East Coast-based celebrity then it might make sense to pair them together but we also look very strongly at relationships and personality. Who do we think is going to get on together? We don't pair people up to argue. We pair them up to give them the best chance of success. It's probably an unusual way of casting a reality show if we're looking at everyone bringing the best out in each other. We want our celebrity to get the best skating partner because they have to spend so much time together. These guys are training an awful lot already and we thought they would actually be training less on the ice because it's pretty grueling but they're getting more and more competitive as we get closer to show one.
JH: Are the celebrities able to spend time together and not just share the journey but also support one another?
PEJ: Not yet. They've all been training separately and have been together a couple of times for photo shoots and press days but the first time they'll really get to see each other skate is over the rehearsals over the weekend [before show one]. There is a competitiveness in there but also I suppose they're all going through something pretty unique here and learning new skills together so you do find often times that they all want to support each other and help each other through it and form an incredibly close bond.
IP: Strapping blades of steel to your feet and traveling at so many miles an hour on live television takes a great amount of bravery, poise, balance and skill. On top of that, just the time to do a performance that's going to move people and impress the panel of judges so it's a lot that they're taking on.
JH: Can fans of "Dancing With the Stars" expect a similar format with "Skating With the Stars?"
IP: To a degree, yes. In terms of what they're performing to, each of the shows is themed differently. Within that theme, though, there are a series of rules that each of the pairs has to adhere to. In the first show, for instance, each of the pairs need to do spins of some kind and an unassisted one foot fly. Those are the things that the judges will be looking out for as well as their performance so we're really balancing the theatricality of figure skating with the athleticism of it. In the coming weeks, you'll be expecting to see your pairs doing lifts and jumps and throws and various other pretty difficult skating moves. The judges will be scoring from 1-10 and they'll be scoring twice. The first score will be for technical merit and the second will be the artistic expression. The most that they can get scored is 60.
JH: How are the judges - Johnny Weir, Dick Button and Laurie Ann Gibson - going to mesh together at the judges' table?
PEJ: Dick Button is obviously a legend in the ice skating world and you'd expect him to be quite serious about technique but he's really interested in performance. Johnny equally is into performance and theatricality but he's very hard on technique because, obviously, he's one of the best ice skaters in the world. Laurie Ann, of course, is not from the ice skating world but she's skilled in the art of choreography and she's worked with Lady Gaga from the very beginning. Laurie Ann is a great character. She's really sparky and full of life. They're all very funny, actually. She's going to look at technique more than anything but she wants to be moved by the performance that she sees. I'm really looking forward to hearing what they have to say about the skaters.
JH: Injuries are always a concern on "Dancing With the Stars" but ice-skating seems like it would be even more dangerous.
PEJ: Ice-skating is a sport so it is dangerous and certainly there have been a few pratfalls along the way. We do have protective knee and elbow gear and, of course, they have really good skating partners. We're very mindful of their safety.
"Skating With the Stars" premieres tonight after "Dancing With the Stars" on ABC.