Discovery Soars on Tightrope Walker Nik Wallenda’s Sky-High Chicago Feats


Discovery Channel is riding the slim profile of tightrope walker Nik Wallenda to new heights of risk in television programming.

On Sunday evening, the network’s big bet on the daredevil apparently paid off handsomely. According to CBS Chicago, 1 million people tuned in to Discovery watch the scion of America’s foremost family of risk-takers traverse two separate spans between Chicago skyscrapers totaling 543 feet (50 stories). Wallenda made even more history by walking one of the lengths blindfolded.[more]

Wallenda and Discovery were equipped with his $20 million liability insurance policy and the network’s customary 10-second broadcast delay in case anything terrible happened to him as he moved across a wire that was 3/4-inch thick and, in the longest stretch, inclined at 19 degrees, Wallenda claimed, instead of the 15 degrees that was advertised.

“There is something just really compelling about watching people push themselves to the limit,” Howard Swartz, Discovery’s executive producer for the Skyscraper Live with Nik Wallenda stunt, told the New York Times. “There is an element of must-see. There is an element of risk. There is an element of awe and danger and inspiration that is very compelling and relatable.”

And, of course, there is an element of business. Chicago-based Allstate Insurance found no irony—or maybe it did—in sponsoring Sunday’s event. Meanwhile, Discovery is coping with a decline in viewing audiences as much as other cable and broadcast networks with the latest downturn coming in the once-hot reality genre.

At least the Wallenda stunt was the kind of reality that can attract even the most jaded audiences to the TV. One of the predecessors in the growing genre, Red Bull’s sponsorship of a free fall from the stratosphere by Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner in 2012, was shown live only on YouTube, while Discovery later broadcast it on TV.

Discovery maintained that it’s only willing to go so far with this kind of thing, however. This year it canceled plans for a live jump off Mt. Everest after an avalanche there killed at least 13 people, according to the New York Times. “We’re not trying to play, ‘Can you top this?'” said Marjorie Kaplan, interim president of Discovery Channel.

But that’s exactly what Wallenda will continue to play. The 35-year-old, seventh-generation death-defying performer, a husband and father of three children, immediately set his sights on his next major stunt. Wallenda wants to honor his great-grandfather, the famed Karl Wallenda, next year on the 45th anniversary of the patriarch’s biggest walk across the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia—which included a headstand on the wire.

“I want to recreate that walk,” the current Wallenda-family star told People. “He’s my hero and my inspiration and I’m hoping there might be a way for me to actually simulate walking the wire with him.”

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[Image via Discovery]