MIT alumnus brings his vision to reality television

Special to Western News

Mike Bickerton, BA’01, Amazing Race Canada co-producer, understands what it takes to create compelling television – and he credits Western for helping get him to the finish line.

Mike Bickerton, BA’01, ran his own amazing race to get where he is today.

Growing up in Kanata, Ont., he travelled 600 kilometres to Western, changed majors, graduated, moved again, earned a graduate degree, paid his dues as an intern, and then worked his way through the television ranks to become one of the most sought-after storytellers for reality, documentary and competition series in Canada.

Today, the Amazing Race Canada co-producer understands what it takes to create compelling television – and he credits Western for helping get him to the finish line.

He first arrived on campus in the late-1990s, during a March Break Open House visit, where he was struck by the life and activity of the campus.

“I had never been to a university campus like that before. I saw people hanging out at Concrete Beach. I felt the energy in the UCC. There were club posters everywhere. I got a real sense of campus life,” he explained. “You could see that people loved the school.”

From a family of nurses – mom, sister, grandmother and aunts – he arrived at Western with thoughts of medicine. “But as it turns out,” he explained with a laugh, “I am really not good at science.”

Struggling with science, he re-evaluated after first year. Bickerton was intrigued with the then-new Media, Information & Technoculture (MIT) program. However, he was worried his marks would keep him out. With the guidance of academic counsellor Kathie Hess, they came up with a plan.

“She was great. Instead of saying, ‘Find something else; figure out a plan B,’ she told me to take it one step at a time, focus on my courses, evaluate the results and then see what other courses were available,” he explained. “Eventually, I got into the program and graduated with an honours degree.

“It’s amazing the difference staff can have on a student’s life. I would not have got into television if I had not got into the MIT program.”

During graduate school, he took an internship at U8TV: The Lofters.

“It was very Big Brother and viewers could stream content live on their computers, which was revolutionary for 2001,” Bickerton explained. “I got to do a little bit of everything: live show control room work, pre-tape show packaging, casting, paperwork, release forms, etc. It was a really good crash course in television production.”

After graduation, a U8TV producer hired him for the first season of Canadian Idol, which turned out to be a big hit, comparable to Olympic gold medal hockey games in terms of ratings. Over the six season run, Bickerton learned multiple sides of the business, starting as a production assistant and finishing as co-producer in the sixth season.

After Canadian Idol wrapped, Bickerton worked on various international formats. Think anything that had ‘Canada’ added to the title – So You Think You Can Dance Canada, Top Chef Canada, Canada’s Next Top Model.

“Being an MIT student really helped prepare me to work in the environments that I do. We would study a range of subjects from political science to media to the arts and your brain has to be able to switch from one discipline to the other,” he explained. “And I’ve been able to do that on the job, whether it’s going from one show to another, or going from one position to another.”

Soon the opportunity to direct presented itself by way of a documentary series about an overweight town in Northern British Columbia called Village on a Diet. “That was the first time I had to really sit down and do extensive interviews with people and take over the directing responsibilities. And I loved it. That led to directing on Real Housewives of Vancouver,” he said.

By this time, Bickerton had built a solid reputation as a top reality television talent. As an independent freelancer, he works hard maintaining his network of contacts.

“Both my parents had very stable, 35-year careers. My dad was an accountant for the government, my mother was a nurse. I realized I could have a very stable career, I just had to plan six months in advance and keep about two months’ worth of expenses in the bank,” he explained.

Currently, Bickerton is producing the sixth season of The Amazing Race Canada, a veritable television success story. His main role is sifting through thousands of applications to find teams to run the race (a separate production team works on the route and the challenges).

“It’s like panning for gold or searching for a needle in a haystack to find those really exciting, fun people who aren’t necessarily the ones screaming, ‘I want to be on TV, I want to be on TV,’” he said.

“We try to offer some new characters and new representations that haven’t been seen on television before. But at the end of the day, I look at the teams and say, ‘Will I be happy with any one of these 10 teams winning? Can my mom root for these teams? Is there good content for my niece and nephew?’ That’s my job, to try and figure it out.”

When he boils down the appeal of The Amazing Race Canada, the bottom line is storytelling.

“When I used to program, I would try imagine the audience as my mom. Or my dad. But as I’m getting older, I think about what we can teach kids through the stories we tell. I loved that in our third season, one of our teams was Hamilton, a transgender teen, and his fiancé, Michaelia.” Hamilton was the first transgender person to appear on either the American or Canadian version of the show.

“Having that young, happy couple on the show was definitely a stand out moment for me. It may be something very, very small but for transgender people and their families, it really matters to see yourself represented in popular culture. I don’t nurse, I don’t do urgent care like my sister who runs an ER, but I can make a difference in some way to somebody through these stories,” said Bickerton.

The whole season is filmed from start to finish in about 30 days. While everybody goes home knowing who won, nobody spills the beans.

“I’ve become really good at giving a ‘stern Dad talk’ at the end of the shoot,” Bickerton said.

Working on The Amazing Race Canada allows Bickerton to tell his stories with a side of travelogue. While the first season was exclusively Canada, from season two onwards, international destinations have been in the mix.

“Travelling the country has been incredible. Canada is just the most beautiful country, full of hidden gems. So, not only do we have new stories to tell, we have new places to show the audience; and ones that are very attainable, all within Canada. Travel is expensive but for some people, these destinations are in their own backyard,” he said.