It’s easy to see how “Skating With the Stars” was green-lighted by ABC: It’s “Dancing With the Stars” but on ice, and people love figure skating! From a network’s point of view, it’s great programming for that pre-holiday season when the only other choices seem to be Christmas specials.
But with Monday’s premiere coming up, it’s hard to see why anyone will watch.
“Skating With the Stars” takes the time-honored reality-show strategy of putting C-list celebs, athletes and stars of other reality shows in the same arena to do something difficult and film what happens. It’s kind of like the old Roman gladiator fights, except losing contestants are voted off rather than killed, and there are no hungry lions for the participants to worry about. There aren’t even polar bears or penguins to skate around, though either would make the show more compelling.
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The problem with “Skating” is the participants, both among the contestants and the professional skaters. Everyone in it falls into at least one of two categories: “Who’s that?” and “Who cares?” Reality shows thrive on giving the audience someone to cheer passionately about, either for or against. There’s no Bristol Palin, Kate Gosselin or Chad Ochocinco here.
Instead … well, take a look at your celebrities: We have actresses Sean Young and Rebecca Budig, actor Brandon Mychal Smith, “Real Housewife” Bethenny Frankel, Olympic skier Jonny Moseley and Motley Crue’s Vince Neil. It’s kind of like the recipe that has worked well on “Dancing,” but only in the way that Tofurky is kind of like the Thanksgiving turkey dinner if you close your eyes and try not to think about it too much.
Neil is this year’s Bret Michaels, the rocker turned reality star, only less famous. Moseley is a fine substitute if you can’t get Apollo Anton Ohno, and the resident winter sports athlete has to be considered an early favorite. You probably haven’t heard of Smith, but if you have elementary school-age kids you may recognize him from the Disney hit show “Sonny with a Chance.”
Budig is best known for her role on “All My Children,” unless you’re a big reality show buff, in which case she’s the ex-wife of former “Bachelor” Bob Guiney. Frankel is the lone member of any of the “Real Housewives” shows with a brain in her head, though I doubt any of the pros were clamoring to be her partner. Nor can I imagine they were eager to deal with Young, most famous for her role as Rachel in “Blade Runner,” who based on her reputation as an actress with the reputation of being difficult to work with, is going to be the wild card.
Who among those is a draw? Granted, the rest of the “Real Housewives of New York City” will watch to see if Frankel falls on her butt and embarrasses herself. And it will be interesting to see whether Smith can have a better autumn than “Sonny” co-star Demi Lovato, who checked herself into a treatment center in October. But is there a single person who anyone in the audience cares about, one way or the other?
Of course, it’s not like any of the professionals can complain much. U.S. figure skating has produced excellent, legendary skaters. Remember watching Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano dominate on the men’s side, a tradition followed by Evan Lysacek on his way to winning gold in 2010? Or the likes of Kristi Yamiguchi, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Sara Hughes on the women’s team? Judging from the ratings the sport gets every four years, you probably do.
Well, how about Ethan Burgess, Fred Palascak and Denis Petukhov? Or Brooke Castile, Keauna McLaughlin and Jennifer Wester? Remember watching any of them perform in competition? Probably not. But those are your pros on “Skating With the Stars.” Of course, all six are excellent skaters, much like the professionals on “Dancing” are among the top dancers around.
The one thing the show has going for it is the judges, particularly if Johnny Weir also is in charge of wardrobe. Between him and Laurie Ann Gibson, the choreographer known in part for her work with Lady Gaga, I'd expect these skating routines to be heavy on the costumes and storylines, and light on the actual jumps.
Me, I'm most curious to watch Dick Button, the third judge. Button was an innovative skater who helped revolutionize the sport 60 years ago and has since become a legendary broadcaster as well. He could be great at this reality-show judging thing, or he could spend the entire two hours wondering what in the heck has happened to his sport that it's now being used by these jokers for cheap winter ratings.
Few in the audience can tell a great dancer from a merely good one without the input of the judges and hosts. Unless you are one of the few audience members who watches competitive ballroom dance, you don’t know how far off the competitors are from the elites.
Figure skating, however, draws millions of fans every four years when it’s one of the keynote sports at the Winter Olympics. Granted, that’s only every four years. But are people going to be impressed at the pedestrian moves and tiny jumps? Especially when they know that elite pairs skaters and ice dancers can do intricate jumps and spins without looking like they are breaking a sweat, even while the effort would be way more than 99.9 percent of the viewers could handle without breaking a leg?
We’ll see. But if Fox's failed attempt with 2006's "Skating With the Celebrities" is any indication, don’t get your hopes up for a second season.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @craigberman .