The Live, Televised Tightrope Walk That Almost No One Is Talking About

The TV industry’s zeal for live events will be put to the test this Sunday on the Discovery Channel when Nik Wallenda attempts to walk a tightrope strung between tall buildings in the windiest city in America.

Millions are expected to tune in to see if Wallenda, the 35-year-old self-proclaimed King of the Tightrope, makes it across or -- let’s be honest -- goes splat.

The show -- titled “Skyscraper Live with Nik Wallenda” -- will be Wallenda’s third high-profile tightrope walk to be seen live on TV.  For this one, the famed funambulist will traverse a tightrope over the Chicago River between the Marina City Towers apartment complex (the buildings seen in the photo accompanying this blog) and an office building that is the headquarters of the Leo Burnett ad agency.



When Wallenda, 35, is finished with that walk, he’ll then walk a tightrope between the Marina City towers -- that is, if he makes it through the first walk. It’s that first leg that figures to be the most challenging of the two separate walks.

At 50 stories, the Leo Burnett building is taller than the Marina City buildings -- which means Wallenda will be walking upwards at a 15-degree angle. Moreover, as you might expect, wind is predicted.

All told, this live telecast is scheduled to run for two hours and 20 minutes (7-9:20 p.m. eastern time), with only a portion of those 140 minutes devoted to the actual crossings. In addition, there’s a one-hour pre-show on Discovery’s schedule (starting at 6 p.m.) called “Countdown to Skyscraper: Live from Chicago.”

Hopefully, people who watch this spectacle will be rooting for Wallenda to make it successfully through both walks, although a live event such as this always brings with it the risk of a mishap -- which is part of the allure of such a thing. As it happens, Wallenda traversed Niagara Falls in June 2012 on ABC without incident. And in June 2013 on Discovery, he successfully completed a live walk over the Little Colorado River Gorge, a section of the Grand Canyon.

Those specials both drew an average audience in the neighborhood of 10 million -- with viewership rising during the actual walks to around 13 million.  Based on the consistency of those numbers, Discovery has every reason to expect this weekend’s telecast to draw about the same.

The fact is, this Wallenda stunt represents the most elaborate non-sports live-event telecast to be mounted anywhere this year.  And yet, the buildup to this event has been strangely muted. For a stunt this complex and dangerous, you might have expected there to be a discernible level of “Wallenda-mania” sweeping the country. But except for Chicago itself -- where there must be some buzz about a television event taking over and disrupting a chunk of the city’s center -- you’d be hard-pressed to find ordinary people on the streets of other cities who are even aware that this stunt is just days away.

Perhaps we’re so jaded, or bombarded by so much media every day, that we find it difficult to get excited about anything anymore -– even the spectacle of a man risking his life on a tightrope hundreds of feet in the air in one of our greatest cities, live on TV.


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