As with Nik Wallenda’s Grand Canyon walk, “Skyscraper Live With Nik Wallenda” represented an unabashed cocktail of hype, breathless hyperbole and showmanship, coupled with a somewhat more muted endorsement of born-again Christianity all the way across. After 95 minutes of foreplay, Wallenda further established himself as this generation’s Evel Knievel, and Discovery Channel had what no doubt will be another boffo rating to sell, without having to exercise the 10-second delay that meant something had gone dreadfully wrong. From that perspective, the corporate players survived their own high-wire act, though not all the participants escaped unscathed.
Indeed, the casualties here were Willie Geist and Natalie Morales, who in hosting the event merely seemed to prove that they will say any inane thing put in front of them on a teleprompter — over and over again. Granted, theirs was a thankless task, asked to fill the first 95 minutes before Wallenda finally mounted the wire, which in all accounted for only about seven minutes — or one twentieth of the total time allotted to the made-for-TV event.
The rest went to commercials and promos (naturally), highlights of past Wallenda stunts (including the inevitable glimpses of great-grandfather Karl falling to his death), animation of everything from the mechanics of the stunt to the muscles in Wallenda’s body, and lots of fretting about the winds and weather, all in the name of building suspense for the big moment.
“If he falls, death all but certain,” said Morales, in a tone seemingly designed to heighten anticipation for such an eventuality.
“One man, zero room for error,” said Geist, looking slightly elfish in his parka and stocking cap.
And so it went. The anchors tried to ask the necessary questions — about Wallenda’s kids watching, about his expressions of faith, and so on — but there was certainly nothing journalistic in this special from an offshoot of NBC News, employing an approach so heavily steeped in hype. And while one can embrace such fare simply as spectacle, it’s difficult not to lament the notion of major news divisions thrusting so much effort and energy into fabricating events that could be funneled into more conventional reporting.
For his part, Wallenda talked the talk about the danger during what amounted to the pregame show, but he was so cool, almost serene during the first phase of the walk as to somewhat mitigate the sense of peril — throwing out thank-yous to Discovery executives, pitching Chicago tourism and of course thanking God, not so humbly, “for the amazing talent you’ve given me.”
Strictly from a visual perspective, the vertigo-inducing aerial shots remain pretty dazzling, although not as impressive this time as they were amid the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon.
In terms of motivation, Wallenda (who also said a prayer with TV pastor Joel Osteen) repeatedly returned to the notion of seeking to inspire others, a questionable outcome at best. Perhaps foremost, in fact, “Skyscraper Live” and its predecessor are most significant for the potential copycats their success will inspire in media circles, as executives become emboldened to give the go-ahead to other treacherous live stunts in an attempt to reel in large, DVR-proof audiences.
So while Nik Wallenda appears to have pretty well mastered his act, the more pertinent question is the yawning chasm into which an event like “Skyscraper Live” might ultimately lead — until someone rolls the dice on a would-be daredevil to whom God hasn’t been quite so generous.