Nik Wallenda, the Grand Canyon and TV's Future

Published on: June 23, 2013 | Written by: Clay Travis

What would have happened if Nik Wallenda fell 1500 feet to his death in the Grand Canyon?

Would the cameras cut away, would Wallenda's mic stay live -- you think he might curse instead of praising Jesus during the plummet? -- would his father's mic catch the reaction to his son's death in real time, would we see any family reaction shots? What would the Discovery Channel do if Wallenda fell? 

How much blame would the Discovery Channel bear? Should they bear any at all? After all, the reason the Discovery Channel is airing the event is because they know we'll watch. Wouldn't we all be partially to blame for Wallenda's death then? After all, he's probably not walking across the Grand Canyon if no one is watching.

So can you really blame television executives for pushing the envelope when we reward them for pushing the envelope? And is it fair to expect television execs to exercise a form of paternalism and not give us what we're telling them to give us because they think the end results might be bad for us? 

I kept having these thoughts tonight as I watched -- along with tons of you on Twitter -- Wallenda traverse the Grand Canyon.

I know many of you had many of the same thoughts and questions.

Because when you boil it all down we watched Wallenda's feat for a simple reason -- because he might die attempting it.

Sure, we can dress up the attraction of this event in lots of ways -- the show itself was a fabulous, bloated excess of American showmanship. For over an hour we learned all about the cable that had been hung across the Grand Canyon. We learned about the Grand Canyon itself, the Wallendas, the windspeed and dust's impact on the cable from disaster weatherman Jim Cantore, but that was all fluff designed to give us all time to Tweet and Facebook the upcoming feat.

Put simply, Wallenda's walk was life or death voyeurism.    

Television has come full circle, we're close to embracing the same attractions as the ancient Romans. How long will it be until we go back to the future and watch a man fight a hungry tiger inside a stadium, just like the gladiators, only this time on live television?

I mean, are you really telling me you wouldn't watch a man fight a tiger on live television?

Of course you would. 

Instead of Discovery having shark week that ends with great whites snacking on seals, why not let men or women risk their lives to swim across a sea of sharks to an island filled with cash? Make it to the island alive and you're rich beyond your wildest imagination, lose and you're eaten by a shark on live television.

Talk about real life stakes!

Are you telling me America wouldn't watch this? Hell, you could have swimming instructors, shark attack experts training the contestants in how to swim to lessen their odds of shark attack, turn it into a reality television program -- The Biggest Loser meets hungry sharks.

I'd watch that in a heartbeat.

Hell, in the past six months I've watched a man jump from space to earth on and watched Wallenda walk across Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.

All three events have been insanely popular on live television thanks to social media.

Without Twitter I would have had no idea any of the three events were going on either.

Tonight I was getting ready for dinner when you guys started tweeting me about the event airing live on Discovery. I put it on at 8:40, with nearly an hour of preliminary show still to air. At one point my five year old looked up from his game of Angry Birds and said, "Dad, this is really boring. Nothing is happening."  

Which was the intent of the program. 

See, there was over 90 minutes of a social media commentary driving viewers to the Discovery Channel. By the time Wallenda took his first step -- wearing jeans, mind you, jeans! -- every single person I follow on Twitter was Tweeting about Wallenda's Grand Canyon walk.

Everyone. 

This kind of television event was made for Twitter and Facebook, a moment we could all share together when the stakes of success or failure were actually life or death. Millions of people who would have never had an idea it was going on watched Wallenda cross the Grand Canyon tonight because of Twitter and Facebook.

When the viewership is released tomorrow, the ratings will blow everyone away.

Which will result in still more of these made for television spectacles.

But where's the line on when a life and death struggle becomes too real for television? Is it when someone dies? Or would a death actually make these events more popular? After all, at some point someone has to die to make the life or death stakes seem real, right? Otherwise, we're just being sold a false bill of goods, eventually if man always triumphs, the fear of death vanishes. 

If the History Channel started reenacting ancient Gladitorial battles that could end in life or death, would it be inappropriate for live television? I mean, who decides what's too much when it comes to live danger? Because, trust me, we'd watch the hell out of a man armed with a spear fighting a tiger. Imagine if you were sitting around on your couch bored on some summer evening and you got this Tweet from me. "Turn on History channel right now, a dude in a loin cloth is about to fight a tiger. All he's got is a Roman sword. The tiger hasn't eaten in two weeks. 

You telling me you aren't immediately turning this thing on?

Of course you are. 

Some of you would root for the tiger, and some of you would root for the man. (Based on your Tweets tonight, lots of you were rooting for Wallenda to fall). 

I'm not even going to get into the morality of what this says about us. I don't think it's particularly wrong to want to watch a man fight a tiger. PETA probably wouldn't like it, but could you find advertising sponsors for a man fighting a tiger? I think so. Ratings would be insane.

Doubt me?   

Why did we all watch tonight? (I mean aside from Nik Wallenda's wife. Who knew that wire walkers outkicked the coverage so vastly?)

We all watched because the twin duality of death or great accomplishment, life or ignominy, is enrapturing live television, captivating in a way our ordinary lives are not. No matter who you are or where you live in America today, it's rare that you're actually at substantial risk of death -- odds are your life's pretty safe. That's because the stakes of everyday life are low. Most of us face our greatest risk driving to and from work.

But we all love the life or death cliffhanger -- the term derives, by the way, from a serial novel published in the 1870's by Thomas Hardy, there was literally a main character left hanging off the edge of a cliff at the end of one of serials -- we all crave that moment of uncertainty that we know will be resolved one way or the other.

It's the simplest story of all, live or die.   

Now social media drives that hook in real time. Which programs benefit the most from social media's spark? Sporting events and awards shows, live spectacles that we can all share at the same time.

Tonight Nik Wallenda walked across the Grand Canyon, but I also think he did something more substantial, he further opened the door to life or death live television.

It's coming.

And soon.  

Are we really that far from a real life Hunger Games?

I don't think so, not if the ultimate goal of television executives is to give us what we really want.

After all, the Hunger Games is just an updated version of the Roman Colosseum.

What's old is new again, particularly when it comes to live television.