The CBC’s ultimate challenge? To become a global reality-TV power player

Why am I so gripped by this? I’m sitting in a boat on the St. Lawrence River in Gananoque, Ont., with Mark Lysakowski, the executive producer of the new CBC reality show Canada’s Ultimate Challenge. The eight-episode series, which premieres Feb. 16, transforms the country into an obstacle course for six teams of four (Team Red, Team Blue etc.) coached by Canadian star athletes including Donovan Bailey and Clara Hughes. The winning team gets to attend the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

The CBC has done reality before, including Battle of the Blades, but they’re not famous for it, so “this is a big one for us,” Sally Catto, general manager, entertainment, factual and sports, says in a joint phone interview with Jennifer Dettman, executive director, unscripted content. They hope the diverse cast will attract a younger, more diverseaudience that has eluded the national broadcaster for at least a decade. The CBC co-developed – and co-owns – the series with the Gurin Company (Shark Tank), which specializes in non-scripted content. This means they can sell it to countries around the world. “That wasn’t the driving force in making it,” Catto says. But it would certainly be a bonus.

On this July day the production is in midseason, and the first of two events in Gananoque is under way. It looks straightforward: One player from each team dives from the dock of the Thousand Islands Boat Museum; swims for 110 metres in murky, choppy water to a tall ship, a replica of the many that ran aground in the shallow water here (every episode includes a dab of Canadian history); climbs netting four metres high into the boat; raises their team flag; swims back (“You don’t have to dive off the boat, but I’d love to see it,” Lysakowski tells them); and hits the finish button on their team plinth.

For the past two hours, I’ve witnessed the backstage machinations of this massive operation: 100 travelling crew, plus 20 to 50 additional local crew per location, who began in Squamish, B.C. (the Outdoor Adventure Capital of Canada), touched down in Yukon (home of the world’s smallest desert), heads next to Quebec City (where contestants will rappel down the iconic Chateau Frontenac) and will end, day 32, on the Confederation Bridge linking New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Today, they’re using 14 cameras, some colour-coded to match the team they follow, 40 GoPros mounted everywhere and a drone that zips into the air just before “Action.” The water bristles with pontoon boats, motorized rubber rafts for the camera operators to lean out of, kayaks bearing safety divers and – product placement alert – a zippy new Sea-Doo Switch. (The coach of the winning swimmer gets to use it during the next event, a tandem kayak race.)

Already today, the crew captured multiple takes of the players’ entrance, as well as instructions from co-hosts Craig McMorris and Nikki Reyes. (Coaches and players learn about each challenge on the spot.) They’ve recorded the teams’ five-minute strategy sessions. They’ve filmed the swimmers lining up and poised to dive in.

But when the challenge begins, everything goes live, and the intensity is instant. Swimmers churn the water. Teammates and coaches roar from the dock. If the cameras don’t catch a moment, it’s gone forever. Then suddenly: uh-oh. As most players start their swim home, one – Lori Campbell, 50, a Two-Spirit university administrator from Regina – is stalled in the netting, grabbing for handholds only to fall back again and again.

Out on the water, Lysakowski gets a call from a producer on the dock. Waneek Horn-Miller, Team Blue’s coach – the first Canadian Mohawk woman to compete in the Olympics, co-captaining the water polo team in Sydney – wants to jump in, even though Campbell is Team Red. “On land, when you push yourself to your absolute threshold, your body fills with lactic acid and your primal brain says ‘Stop,’” Horn-Miller tells me later. “When that happens in the water, your brain says, ‘If you stop, you will drown.’ It’s terrifying.”

Lysakowski okays her request. “Great television,” he says matter-of-factly. Horn-Miller speeds out to Campbell, and whatever she says works; Campbell starts up the netting. Everyone on the dock, including the crew, explodes into cheers. The women swim back side by side, and okay, yes, I’m crying.

Catto won’t say how much this flying circus costs, “but it’s definitely one of our bigger shows,” she demurs. “We budgeted it appropriately to deliver the quality you see.” Nor does she mention how badly the CBC needs a ratings boost. Its share of the prime-time audience in the 2021-22 season, outside of the Beijing Olympics, was a not-great 4.9 per cent, down 7 per cent from 2020-21 for its loyal demographic (aged 25 to 54) and down 9 per cent for its most fickle one (aged 2 to 24). As well, the recent announcement by Catherine Tait, CBC’s president and CEO, that the broadcaster is preparing to shift its content to online-only over the next decade or two was not exactly met with cheers.

On the plus side, though, Canada’s Ultimate Challenge practically screams CBC – it highlights our country’s wonders, both natural and man-made; celebrates our star athletes; showcases contestants who represent our diversity; and, per Catto’s mandate, “takes Canada to the world.”

And, they hope, to the bank. “The moment we hit on ‘turn Canada into an obstacle course,’ we knew we had something,” Dettman says. “It’s hard to come up with a format that’s both ambitious and easy for the marketing and international sales people to explain – especially in this extremely competitive market, where there are so many shows.”

For years Dettman has attended international television markets, “and in the graphs of where original formats are coming from – Israel, the Netherlands – Canada hasn’t even shown up,” she says. That’s beginning to change: The CBC has exported Canada’s Smartest Person to 15 territories, and they’re currently selling the sand-sculpture competition Race Against the Tide. Canada’s Ultimate Challenge arrives at an especially fortuitous moment, because international television buyers are actively looking for formats they can purchase and adapt to celebrate their countries. The Gurin Company floated the idea at television markets last fall, and numerous countries expressed interest. “Once the show broadcasts, the sales will start to happen,” Dettman predicts. And once ratings roll in, they will decide about a second season.

Based on my reaction, they have reason for optimism. Watching the first four episodes at home, I was as swept up as I was on location. The challenges are one component: run up a ski-jump hill, or climb a majestic tree, or unfurl a rope bridge across the Yukon River. Then throw in stunning visuals – “Canada shows up ready to go,” Lysakowski says. “We just have to turn on the cameras” – and intriguing player bios (Chris Cederstrand, 42, from Okotoks, AB, is Canada’s first above-the-knee amputee firefighter! Kimber Bernhard, 35, from Saskatoon, is a tattoo artist and roller derby skater!); add unpredictable humans and a ticking clock; and somehow you get something that feels bigger than its parts.

Lysakowski is a competition-show veteran who’s produced, among others, Top Chef Canada, Canadian Idol and The Amazing Race Canada (the most-watched Canadian show ever). But even he was surprised by the competitive fervour of Ultimate, as he calls it. “Everyone wants to win,” he says. “But what’s unique to this show, the players are also looking for the validation of their coaches. And I underestimated how competitive the coaches would be. They refer to their players as athletes. They want this to be their Olympics-like moment.”

Team Black’s coach, Luke Willson – he played NFL football for the Seattle Seahawks when they won the Super Bowl – arrived affable and jokey; by Episode 2 he was instructing his team that by the end of the 500-kilogram hay-bale-push challenge, he wanted to see them “with blurred vision, coughing up blood.”His athletes ate it up. “As the season goes on, you can see people trying to level themselves up,” say Jeff Thrasher, showrunner and series producer, “to become better than they thought they could be.”

Horn-Miller’s style is to be honest with her players, but never belittle them. “I’ve already tested my limits,” she says. Now she wants them to learn what giving their all feels like: “If you look externally for validation, you’ll be at the whim of external opinion. But if you can say, ‘I was fearless, I gave everything,’ you hold the cards to your well-being.”

The series was the crew’s ultimate challenge, too. Thrasher spent months running scoring scenarios, to devise one that’s fair yet keeps the contest tight until the finale. During the shoot, the plane would land in a new province and the crew hit the ground running. One day they had to load all gear, catering and personnel into gondolas. Another, rotating cube vans zigzagged up a logging road to a remote mountain trestle bridge, with no cell reception. For the finale in New Brunswick, they had to shoot while the tide was out: get the gear down 150 steps, set up on the slimy, uneven ocean floor, film and get everything back up – all in four hours.

Back in Gananoque, I witness the second challenge – a kayak race on an open waterway – from a camera boat. The instant the starting horn blows, it’s a churn of foaming water, multiple camera boats fanning out to cover multiple kayaks, racing forward to keep up with a team, falling back to stay out of a shot.

Lysakowski’s phone rings again: A kayak has capsized. “Is there a camera with them?” he asks. A second later we learn it’s Cederstrand’s kayak – and he had to pass his prosthetic leg out of the water to his partner.

“Looking back now, it’s one of the funnier moments,” Cederstrand tells me later. “But we had to fight through it.”

Because everyone’s will to win is so palpable, moments like Cederstrand’s or Campbell’s, when something goes awry – when the definition of winning shifts to persevering – feel extra meaningful. “My grandmother was a residential-school survivor,” Campbell tells me later. “I just kept telling myself that any pain and suffering I was experiencing was nothing compared to what our people have gone through. Sometimes it’s hard for people in our community to even dream. I wanted to show them you can dream, and you can do whatever you dream. We have intergenerational trauma, but we also have intergenerational strength.”

“Postpandemic, the show feels incredibly timely,” Catto says. “We’ve spent three years in isolation. People are craving interaction. This show is about teams, groups of strangers who learn to work together. When someone needs encouragement, the team lifts them up.” The players and coaches are keeping in touch via chat rooms, texts, visits. A few recently attended Bailey’s birthday party.

During the shoot, Thrasher and other producers filmed every challenge on their phones, instant-replay insurance. He still has the footage of Horn-Miller running up to him in Gananoque, asking to jump in.“It’s something I look at every now and then,” he says. “That moment was bigger than the challenge, bigger than the show. Someone needed helping, someone helped, and with that came camaraderie. That’s the magic of what we try to create, and that time we got it.”

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