“Listen to that roar!…I love Chicago, and Chicago definitely loves me!” Nik Wallenda boasted as he walked about two city blocks worth of wire suspended between two 500-foot-plus-tall Chicago skyscrapers for Discovery Channel, and about 50,000 people below screamed approval tonight. For the second leg of his walk, which he performed blindfolded, Nik told them to shut up. That included a couple fangirls who follow Wallenda to his walks, and call themselves The Nik Chiks.
“That man has swagger like nobody I’ve ever seen before!” Willie Geist gushed when the first leg was over. NBC News’ Geist and Natalie Morales, along with The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore hosted the special, Skyscraper Live, produced by the news division’s Peacock Productions for Discovery.
Despite the swagger, Wallenda aborted plans to take a selfie while out on the wire.
“There is an incredible risk involved in this endeavor. Viewer discretion is advised,” Discovery said ominously on screen before the program’s start. Even so, Peacock Productions President and General Manager Sharon Scott said before tonight the telecast would have a 10-second delay. And, by giving viewers a full 90-minutes of walk-up blah, blah, blah before Wallenda actually took his first step for the special, which started at 7 PM ET, the network ran its biggest risks of the night – aggravating viewers out of their wits.
It was the first time Wallenda walked a tightrope blindfolded — in ’11, he performed acrobatic moves while blindfolded, on a gadget called The Wheel of Death that hung off the side of the Tropicana Casino and Resort’s 23rd floor in Atlantic City.
Before finally taking his first step on the wire in Chicago, Wallenda prayed with his “good luck charm,” as Geist’s described televangelist Joel Osteen. “Thank you, God, for the amazing talent you’ve given me,” Wallenda said modestly as he approached the halfway mark on the first leg of his two record-setting walks. Nearing the finish, he opted instead to thank the mortals calling the shots at Discovery, calmly ticking off names like an old pro at a Hollywood trophy show acceptance speech: “Marjorie Kaplan, you’re awesome, [David] Zaslav – Laurie Goldberg, I love ya – Howard Swartz, amazing, Mike Sorensen, Eileen O’Neill – you guys rock!”
“It’s unbelievable that you were thinking about taking a selfie out there!” Morales marveled after Leg 1 wrapped, as she took a selfie with him from atop one of the skyscrapers.
The second leg of his walk was inspired, Wallenda explained, by his recent Lasik eye surgery, which got him thinking if he would be able to continue wire walking if he lost his vision. Not that there was any connection, he hastened to add.
For his next made-for-TV tightrope act, Wallenda said he will recreate a walk his great grandfather performed 45 years ago in which he did two headstands while traversing a wire 600 feet in the air and more than 1,000 feet long. Wallenda — who appears to be going by King of the Highwire these days, and is identified as such by NBC and Discovery in official documents, in much the same way Michael Jackson’s camp negotiated for him to be called King of Pop, on first reference, back in the day — said he has never before performed a high-wire headstand in public.
Wallenda already had demonstrated his tightrope stunts are TV ratings crack. In June of ’13, an average of 13 million people watched him slowly walk a wire across the Colorado River Gorge while conducting a running dialogue with God and Jesus on Discovery Channel. “Oh, I praise you, Jesus. Lord, help this cable to calm down — command it,” the aerialist suggested a few yards into his quarter-mile “Skywire” stunt. Wallenda was not wearing a harness but had a microphone and two cameras — including one that looked down on the dry Little Colorado River bed and one that was focused dead ahead. Discovery telecast the ratings grab with a 10-second delay in the U.S. and a couple hundred other countries. The two-hour event delivered 8.5 million total viewers — jumping to 13 million during the actual walk. For comparison sake: during the 9:30-10 half hour, in which Wallenda was actually walking the wire and clocking 13 million viewers, ABC’s Whodunnit? had logged 3.8 million people, CBS’ The Good Wife rerun snared 3.3 mil, NBC’s Crossing Lines bagged 4.2 mil and Fox’s American Dad repeat popped 3.2 mil.
That stunt shattered records across numerous platforms including social media, where Wallenda generated 1.3 million tweets becoming the No. 1 most social show across broadcast and cable in the U.S.
Wallenda became a TV celebrity in 2012 when he tightrope-walked across Niagara Falls in primetime, only that time broadcaster ABC made him wear a safety line. (One morning in October of ’08, NBC’s Today show broadcast live when Wallenda broke a high-wire record bicycling on a rope above buildings in Newark, NJ.)
Discovery’s penchant for death-defying ratings grabbers took a tragic turn in April, when the network scrapped plans to broadcast live a Mount Everest jump after an avalanche there killed 13. The network instead announced it would take the footage that already had been shot and turn it into a documentary special about the single deadliest incident in the history of the world’s tallest peak. NBC News’ Peacock Productions crews were at base camp at the time of the avalanche, shooting footage in advance of Discovery’s planned five nights of live programs culminating in what was to have been Joby Ogwyn’s May jump. Ogwyn and his team instead got involved in recovering bodies from the mountain. According to Discovery, the Everest Jump Live project had two expedition teams. One was responsible for the camera and production team, which had hired some of the 13 Sherpas killed in the avalanche. The other team was Ogwyn’s, who had been to Everest many times and selected Sherpa guides with whom he had worked in the past; they too were among the fatalities.