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Skating Comes In From the Cold : When Stars on Ice Hits the Pond Tonight, Recent Exposure Will Pay Off

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

During one particularly busy month in the preparation period for this year’s edition of Stars on Ice, the full 14-member cast was available to rehearse for a grand total of three days.

“That was because of all the competitions,” says director-choreographer Sandra Bezic. “It’s a credit to our organizational skills that we have a show.” That show goes on tonight at the Pond of Anaheim.

It’s no secret that figure skating is hot. Television programmers have been quick to cash in on viewer interest that generated record ratings at the Winter Olympics, ratings bolstered at least in part by the attack last January on Nancy Kerrigan.

Since the Olympics, numerous competitions and exhibitions have appeared on all four major broadcast networks and several cable networks. In the seven days beginning Saturday, there are no fewer than six such shows on TV, from the latest edition of Dick Button’s annual World Professional Figure Skating Championships on NBC (Jan. 27) to the brand-new “Elvis on Ice” show on TBS (Saturday and Monday), starring current World Champion Elvis Stojko.

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Such shows have brought in the hoped-for gold-medal Nielsen numbers. For instance, the ratings for the 11 skating programs presented by ABC Sports leaped 30% over last season’s seven outings.

Stars on Ice itself has been televised in two versions, a two-hour production for TBS and a one-hour show on NBC. And many of its cast members have triple Salchowed their way to hefty cash prizes offered by the various competitions.

“I haven’t had a day off in half a year,” says Katarina Witt, the 1984 and 1988 Olympic champion who joined last season. “It’s just eating and skating. I decided this year to do as much as I can--you never know if an opportunity like this will come along again.”

Adds 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie, who lives and trains in Cambridge, Mass., but whose parents live in Yorba Linda: “Our expectations have been completely (turned around). When I was a kid training in Santa Monica, I’d see people in Ice Capades, and every year they seemed to have one less triple (jump), and then they’d fade away. I expected that I wouldn’t have a long career, that I’d go into Ice Capades and be doing the same thing for 33 weeks a year.”

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Instead, he has deferred his entrance to Harvard Law School three times to take advantage of all that pro skating has to offer. “This is intense--very creatively stimulating,” he says. “We’re doing all the things we did in amateur competition.”

At least one skater is doing even more: 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, who co-created, performs in and now co-produces Stars on Ice, is also a skating analyst for CBS Sports. During “Eye on Sports,” it was not uncommon to see Hamilton trade his microphone for a pair of blades.

“I didn’t want to be perceived as sitting there in a tuxedo when most of my time is spent skating,” he explained. “I kind of pushed myself.”

Once, Hamilton recalls, he flew from an Atlanta ice-show appearance--he got a police escort to make it to the airport on time--to Salt Lake City, then headed by private jet to Sun Valley, Ida., where he got to bed at 3 a.m. With only a few hours’ sleep, he was up practicing for a CBS competition later that morning.

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Cast members say that all the skating on television has produced an audience that is much more knowledgeable about the sport, and that better-informed audiences give participants a boost at exhibitions.

“You always feel a little better when you know the audience is enthusiastic about the performance, that you’re skating to a warm crowd,” said 1992 Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi. “All the new opportunities this year have definitely helped.”

On the flip side, there is the danger of overexposure. When skaters say they cannot keep up with all the TV programs, will the audience burn out as well?

“It’s an incredibly exciting time for figure skating,” says Bezic, who doubles as a commentator for NBC Sports. “Obviously, a lot of things have to be sorted out, like rules and judging. But the bottom line is, the quality of some of this skating is superb.

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“The competitions push standards,” she said. “When you look at Scott, Brian Boitano, Kristi, their work is getting better. The audience will become more selective as they become more and more educated. The good shows will stay.”

* Stars on Ice will be presented tonight at the Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave. 8 p.m. $22.50 and $37.50. (714) 704-2500 or (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).


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