Beneath Nik Wallenda’s Tightrope, Discovery and NBC News Face Balancing Act

Analysis: For TV networks, broadcasting live spectacles means conquering the impossible and preparing for the unthinkable

Nik Wallenda Chicago
Gretchen Eisele

Nik Wallenda isn’t the only person who will have to totter precariously on a tightrope this Sunday.

As the daredevil attempts two different high-wire challenges over Chicago this weekend, his efforts will be televised by Discovery Channel. But the task of shooting his attempt – an undertaking that involves five miles of cable, lifting piles of equipment to the tops of tall buildings by helicopter, and securing clearances from the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard – is equally daunting. Discovery Channel as worked on the project for “the better part of a year,” says Howard Swartz, vice president of production and development at the network. It’s a wonder the event will even get off the ground.

“It’s pretty big,” acknowledges Sharon Scott, president and general manager of Peacock Productions, the NBC News unit that is producing the broadcast. “Television is hard. Getting people to watch in real-time is a challenge.”

The ten-second delay Discovery and Peacock Productions will employ during this weekend’s broadcast cannot hold back the simple fact that stunts of the sort Wallenda tries are in growing demand by TV networks. The media companies who operate them understand all too well that live “spectaculars” can help draw the kinds of outsize audiences that were once the norm when audiences had fewer TV networks and video-streaming devices to distract them.

The TV networks are trying to make use of a lesson they have learned in recent years from broadcasts of major sporting matches: The power of an event that must be seen live to enjoy it in full has only increased in an age when viewers often record programs to watch on their own days or weeks later, skipping the advertising that supports the show. That’s reason enough for all the big media companies to pony up millions to telecast a season of NBA games, or NFL football on Thursday nights. NBC has begun broadcasting live renditions of popular Broadway musicals at holiday time with celebrities like Allison Williams or Carrie Underwood. Comedy Central will feature Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert live during next month’s U.S. election tallies. Other networks are putting more promotional weight behind new glitzy awards programs.

An Attempt To Break Records

Florida tightrope walker Wallenda will attempt to walk between two Windy City skyscrapers 50 stories above the Chicago River on an incline rising eight stories, and then, if he is successful, return to his perch and attempt a shorter walk between two buildings while wearing a blindfold. He could break two world records in the process: steepest incline walk and highest walk while blindfolded. Yet there is no guarantee he will be successful, and both Swartz and Scott say their teams have made preparations in case Wallenda should stumble – or worse.

“We are documenting what he does,” says Scott, who notes that Wallenda was not prodded into the exploit by Discovery or anyone else. The TV journalists covering the event – Natalie Morales and Willie Geist from “Today” and Jim Cantore from The Weather Channel – and producers have protocols worked out in case Wallenda loses contact with the wire, or decides circumstances mandate trying the walk some other time. “In the worst-case scenario, we just want to make it palatable for the viewer, and hopefully say something eloquent enough for them to understand that we were simply fulfilling his dream. It’s a great television event, there’s no question, but it’s incredibly dangerous.”

Wallenda’s safety is only one concern among many. Peacock had to secure air rights and water rights to keep aircraft away from Wallenda’s sky-high walk, and gawkers from the river over which he will cross. Gretchen Eisele, executive producer for Peacock, says her team even had to negotiate with several owners of individual condominiums because their balconies were needed for tethers. She has been at work on the project since June, she says. “It’s a particularly complicated spot because of the river and drawbridges, and being in the middle of downtown and traffic,” she explains.

Eisele supervised the set up for Wallenda’s June 23, 2013, skywire trek over a wire set up in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon. To make the whole thing work, her team had to negotiate with Native American Indian tribes, build a road in three weeks and rappel down 1,500 feet to set up a camera, among other things. Discovery’s broadcast drew 13 million viewers.
One would think Chicago would make for an easier setting, but Eisele found new wrinkles, including the fact that Wallenda will make his tightrope cross at night, rather than during the day. And of course, Chicago has thousands of people who will want to gawk. The Grand Canyon has fewer.

“We swapped out from being in the middle of nowhere to being in the middle of everywhere,” she says.

Pressure to Perform

There will be even more pressure coming from the way the event will be televised. Discovery intends to maintain live coverage of Wallenda’s second wire walk while airing commercials at the same time, says Swartz. The network will make use of a “double box” that will present action and advertisements in two different parts of the TV screen, a method Fox has tested during broadcast of “American Idol.” As a result, “it’s almost half an hour fo continual coverage,” says Eisele. “That’s a pretty long stretch for us to stay live.”

The risks of mounting such fare came to wide notice in April, when a deadly avalanche killed sherpas who were helping Discovery and Peacock prepare what was supposed to be a two-hour live event that would have shown mountain climber Joby Ogwyn leaping from Mt. Everest in a wing suit. While feats of derring-do remain a “cottage industry” in the TV business overall, Peacock’s Scott notes, her team has heard of “wall climbers” who would like to go on TV to scale tall buildings, or explore the oceans.

“There was definitely a pause” in activity after the Everest incident, she says. In recent months, Peacock has heard ideas about showing people exploring life deep under the ocean or trying to climb tall buildings without a rope. A lot of those pitches, whether to Peacock or other production outlets, “went away,” she said, because they were not deemed suitable or possible.

Yet the appetite for something that will bring millions in front of the TV screen in a sort of community still exists. In 2015, NBC expects to televise a three-hour live event on its “Today” morning show in which hosts Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie will join viewers in monitoring Branson and his adult children, Holly and Sam, as they travel aboard SpaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic’s terminal at Spaceport America in New Mexico into space.

Despite the intense interest these events bring, the two companies want to stay selective, say executives. “These projects don’t grow on trees,” says Swartz. “We have to work with people who are the best practitioners of their craft. We get a ton of pitches every day for live events, but just a lot of them are so crazy.” Ultimately, says Scott, executives “recognize there are only so many of these we can do every year, no matter how many people come at us.”