‘Good Morning America,’ ‘Today’ Borrow Tricks From Nik Wallenda

Analysis: TV networks' need to create live 'spectacles' in an era of fragmented audiences is adding new wrinkles to even some of its most durable formats

ABC News

Good Morning America” meteorologist Ginger Zee looks nothing like tightrope-walking daredevil Nik Wallenda. Yet for one agonizing block of time on a recent Friday, the two seemed more similar than different.

On the Friday, November 7 edition of the venerable ABC morning program, Zee made a tandem jump from a plane nearly 13,000 feet over Homestead, Florida, with a member of the U.S. Army Parachute team. As “GMA” co-anchor Lara Spencer brought her hands to her mouth and openly fretted – “Oh my gosh! Ginger, be careful!” – Zee smiled and plummeted at 120 miles per hour, all with wireless GoPro cameras showing the action from her point of view. Once all was well, she started chatting with her co-hosts as though she were back in the studio.

“When the door to the plane opened and we were about to jump, all I was thinking was …’I’m hungry!’” Zee said in an emailed response to questions, adding: “I rarely think twice about adventure…I live for it.”


There seems to be more of an appetite for such derring-do in the mornings, typically one of the calmer periods of the TV day. During her tenure on “GMA,” Zee has swum with sharks in the Bahamas and scaled the wall of the Wit Hotel in Chicago. At NBC rival “Today,” the crew in July filmed newsreader Natalie Morales scaling the wall of a glacier in Alaska (under some duress) and, more recently, captured veteran weatherman Al Roker in a 34-hour marathon weather forecast that was live-streamed. When the stunt wrapped on the November 14th edition of the show, Roker’s voice was reduced to a croak.

As TV personalities, Zee, Morales and Roker are expected to take part in events their viewers can only dream of: Interviews with celebrities, broadcasts that take place from remote parts of the world or during crisis events or brewing storms. Roker has even shared with the “Today” audience his 2002 gastric bypass surgery. But the most danger anyone on a morning show typically had to face was suffering a nick or cut during a cooking segment (or, as Jane Clayson did on a 2002 broadcast of “The Early Show” on CBS, questioning a grumpy, knife-wielding Martha Stewart about a stock-trading scandal that would eventually land her in prison).

Now these new extreme-sports-like assignments add elements of risk and bodily harm to what have for decades been relatively placid programs. And they surface as TV networks are trying to do more to gather audiences around live “spectacles” that seem to be one of the few things –aside from sports matches and awards shows – that can still knit a TV viewership frayed beyond repair by dozens of new ways of streaming video into the sort of mass that advertisers still covet. They also emphasize the element of urgency in a world that may see less immediacy in live broadcasting simply because so much TV – think Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” or John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” – apes its look and feel.

“Maybe audiences take more convincing, need more sensational signifiers of ‘liveness,’” said Gordon Coonfield an associate professor of communication at Villanova University. Getting it right is crucial, he argued. These days, producers need to focus on “making TV compelling. After all, that is the one thing broadcast TV has that social media and film aren’t able to do better.”

At “GMA,” “I was looking for something original to do for our audience,” said Michael Corn, the ABC News veteran who was named senior executive producer of the morning program in August. He also wanted to “take advantage” of the fact that it the show is broadcast live. Having wireless cameras that would let viewers see the jump from Zee’s point of view made the stunt worth contemplating, he said. “It’s not about taking risks. It’s about what we can do to bring people places they haven’t been or what experiences we can share with people who are interesting.”

A spokeswoman for “Today” did not respond to requests for interviews with producers and anchors.

While entertaining the audience seems paramount, producers also take steps to mitigate potential problems. Zee said staffers spent two days testing equipment to make sure all was secure, Zee said. The show was on a five-second delay during her jump, said Corn.

TV networks may come under more pressure to weave a “must see” feeling into programming where it has not seemed as necessary in the past. ABC recently aired an episode of its primetime drama “Nashville” that featured live performances from cast members who portray country-music stars. After finding success in 2013 with a live broadcast of the Broadway version of “The Sound of Music” featuring Carrie Underwood, NBC is set to mount a live “Peter Pan” next week with Allison Williams and Christopher Walken. And Discovery Communications has captured attention with live broadcasts of the aforementioned Wallenda traversing a tightrope over downtown Chicago, among other places.

“The programming gets a large live audience and it’s something that can drive a lot of social conversation,” said Sam Armando, senior vice president at SMGx,a media-research unit of ad company Publicis Groupe. Advertisers increasingly seek out content hey can use to reach broad crowds but that also sparks “viral” pass-along as viewers talk to each other via Twitter, Tumblr and other social-media venues. TV’s new focus on live spectacle “is going to continue as long as it continues to drive results,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ginger Zee said she is eager to find new challenges. “My adventure resume is growing,” she said, adding, “I’m pretty open to doing just about anything.”