“Skating with the Stars:” ABC’s Take on Skating Reality

ABC/Adam Larkey
Rebecca Budig celebrated her victory with Tanith Belbin.

In keeping with the tradition of its wildly successful “Dancing with the Stars,” ABC added “Skating with the Stars” to its lineup in November 2010. The short, five-week series put six pairs to the test, each composed of a professional figure skater and a celebrity, although the show had to reach into the D-List to fill out its roster.

The first episode had an auspicious start, premiering immediately after “Dancing’s” finalé. However, the first season fell short of the buzz generated by similar shows in Canada, Great Britain and Russia.

“Skating with the Stars” had talented figure skaters, outspoken judges that included media darling Johnny Weir and skating patriarch Dick Button, the backing of a major network, and plenty of gory injuries. It featured the dramatic mid-competition withdrawal of Brandon Mychal Smith and Keauna McLaughlin and the shocking elimination of judges’ favorites Jonny Moseley and Brooke Castile in the final week.

On paper, it had everything that a reality show should need to be successful.

After all, this is a nation that has supported 12 seasons of a show that chronicles people trapped in a house together. “Skating with the Stars” had to be more exciting than “Big Brother,” right?

But somehow, the finalé and crowning of rightful champions Rebecca Budig and Fred Palascak over Bethenny Frankel and Ethan Burgess seemed anti-climactic.

For the athletes involved, though, the show was a foray into exciting territory. Pairs skaters and ice dancers do not normally get premium billing, so mingling with celebrities was a new experience.

Participant Jennifer Wester, an ice dancer and a former member of Team USA, recalled her first paparazzi blitz outside a restaurant. “It was a sea of white light; I didn’t know if it was the end of the tunnel, if I’d died!”

Beyond the Hollywood glamour, the series chronicled what it was like for celebrities, most of them not elite athletes, to attempt to work with professional skaters. Ugly bruises and nasty injuries pervaded the show, and the stars had to deal with these isuses without the tolerance and stamina that the athletes spent years building.
Wester was given the task of training and partnering with Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil. “He was very good at pushing through pain for someone who didn’t come from an athletic background,” she said.

Despite the challenges Wester is hoping the show will continue. Perhaps “Skating with the Stars” does deserve a second chance. Its “Dancing” counterpart really began to flourish after its short, experimental first season.

Maybe ABC can get a rink that is closer to full-size and cut down on the cheesiness factor. And maybe someone can ask Christopher Dean what the secret is to the popularity of Great Britain’s “Dancing on Ice.” Either way, I am open to see if they can improve on it next year.

If ABC does give it another shot and Wester is asked to return, she said she would accept the offer. “I would not even hesitate,” she said. “It was a stressful experience, but one I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Originally published in April 2011