NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — ABC is turning Nik Wallenda’s attempted tightrope walk over Niagara Falls into a prime-time television event next month, devoting a full three hours to the daredevil’s June 15 walk, the network said Friday.
Wallenda is a seventh-generation member of the famous daredevil family the Great Wallendas, also known as the Flying Wallendas, whose history as a traveling circus troupe dates to 1780.
“It’s a return to some of the great events you’ve seen on television over the years,” ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. “I think back to my own childhood and Evel Knievel where literally the whole country would gather around the set and watch one of these extraordinary stunts.”
That the event would grab three hours in prime time didn’t surprise media expert Robert Thompson, who said the Wallenda legend together with the bygone tradition of daredevil attempts at conquering Niagara Falls are big draws – even if it may mean some soul-searching and macabre contingency planning at the network.
“They’re planning a show where one of the pre-production activities is making sure everyone knows what happens in case this guy dies,” said Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“The real tension here is not will he get from one side to the other,” he said. “The tension is will he make it across without dying, and I think there are some real serious ethical issues.”
The thought of a fall is what will keep retired physical therapist Peter Swales from tuning in. He sees a kind of ghoulishness in those who will.
“They want him, I’m sure deep down, to make it, but if he doesn’t, boy, they want to be able to see it,” Swales said by phone from Springville, N.Y., south of Buffalo.
Swales is probably in the minority, said University at Buffalo pop culture expert David Schmid.
“It’s the same reason everyone rubber necks on the thruway when there’s a crash,” the associate English professor said. “When we finally realize what the holdup is we say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ and then what do we do when we drive by? We take a look.”
But Schmid said the attraction to the Wallenda show goes beyond morbid curiosity. This is real “reality” television.
“Reality TV is so safe and so scripted and so managed that any element of risk or unpredictability has been entirely removed,” he said. “This on the other hand is a genuinely unpredictable situation and it makes people want to watch, but it also makes them nervous.”
For its part, ABC will have a 5- to 10-second delay in the live feed to give producers time to react if something goes wrong.
“We are very mindful of the fact that this will be a historic event with families gathering around the television to watch this epic walk and they should be assured that all appropriate safety measures will be in place,” Schneider said.
Wallenda said he’s adamantly opposed to tethering himself to the 2-inch wire to remove the life-or-death element.
“It’s family history. This is what we do,” Wallenda said Friday, a day before starting daily sessions on a practice wire outside the Seneca Niagara Casino. “I feel like that’s taking away from it. I feel like I’m cheating at that point.”
He said he’s trained to grab the wire if there’s trouble.