How Much Will TV Risk for Ratings Rewards?

Network jockeying to raise stakes in stunt programs is an accident waiting to happen

Nik Wallenda Tightrope

Nik Wallenda survived his “Skywire” walk across the Grand Canyon in June. But it’s not much of a leap to envision the fallout from the made-for-TV event leading to someone getting killed.

The live telecast drew a staggering 13 million viewers for Discovery Channel, which in this day and age is certain to generate plenty of attention — and frantic phone calls to agents pitching more of same. Yet as with any made-for-TV stunt, the issue isn’t so much about the programs that lead the way as the inevitable knockoffs, spinoffs and clones destined to follow.

Granted, spectacular stunts and death-defying acts are practically as old as entertainment. Indeed, for many the name Wallenda will always be linked to Nik’s grandfather Karl, who plummeted to his death during a 1978 high-wire walk in Puerto Rico.

Still, the digital age has a way of ratcheting up the pressure and the demand for titillating content, raising a question with which the industry needs to grapple before taking the plunge much further — namely, what’s an acceptable level of breakage in terms of lost life and limbs?

If that sounds callous or exaggerated — surely we’re not prepared to embrace the inevitability of people dying for ratings, a la “Network” — consider events that didn’t end as happily as Wallenda’s bit of derring-do.

In April, MTV canceled the unscripted seriesBuckwild” after one of its stars, Shain Gandee, and two other men died in a truck accident in West Virginia that was not directly show-related. Still, the 21-year-old daredevil was killed while “mudding,” engaging in the kind of risky behavior that gave the series about hard-living rural youth its edge.

Just a few weeks ago a Cirque du Soleil aerialist, Sarah Guyard-Guillot, fell 90 feet to her death while performing in Las Vegas. While the Cirque shows have a commendable safety record, one has to wonder if quality-control issues become more challenging as the franchise continues spreading to new venues, with nearly 20 shows flying under its banner.

In a lighter vein, BBC America premiered a series in July, “Dangerman,” featuring Jonathan Goodwin, whose act hinges on Houdini-style feats mixing a magician’s touch with a carnival sideshow, from being buried alive with poisonous snakes to hanging off the side of a highrise building by his fingers (the precise number determined by a dice roll).

At least “Dangerman” isn’t live, though that’s the obvious secret sauce in the stunt genre. As with sports, the unpredictable nature of such broadcasts is an intoxicating hedge against DVR recording and ad-skipping, however morbid the audience’s curiosity might be.

As Sharon Scott, chief of the entity that mounted the Wallenda special, NBC News’ Peacock Prods., told Variety earlier this month: “The stakes could not have been higher. The fear could not have been greater. And the risk — it could have gone terribly wrong.”

That sense of peril powers a number of relatively recent offerings designed to tickle the nerve endings, from Felix Baumgartner’s Red Bull-sponsored “space jump” (another hit for Discovery) to the relatively new fields of extreme sports and mixed-martial arts. Meeting the undeniable appetite for fresh programming — and particularly ideas geared toward young men — raises legitimate concerns regarding how far producers and execs will push boundaries, other than the limits imposed by insurance companies.

A mic’d-up Wallenda garnered attention for expressing his faith with practically every step — repeating, “I praise you Jesus,” over and over — as he traversed the canyon; given the harrowing, vertiginous view, one couldn’t blame him enlisting a rabbi or imam just to hedge his bet.

Should TV programmers proceed along this path, those responsible for such exercises might be wise to do some communicating with their own higher powers, uttering a prayer (secular or otherwise) that they don’t go down in history as the poor slob who greenlit a would-be spectacle that went terribly, terribly awry.

Because the whole circus notion of operating without a net? For once, it isn’t just a metaphor.