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Will the "Wallenda Walk" Draw Viewers?
June 14, 2012  | By Alan Pergament  | 17 comments

WBEN Radio anchor Tom Puckett had me over a barrel last Friday when he asked Stilltalkintv to predict what the national audience will be for Nik Wallenda’s high-wire walk over Niagara Falls this Friday.

I felt a little like ESPN’s outspoken analyst Stephen A. Smith when asked who was going to win game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat (who won) and the Boston Celtics.

Smith said four words that rarely come out of his mouth: “I have no idea.” Or something like that.

I have no idea how many people will watch nationally or locally. I can’t find anyone in my social circle who is all that interested in watching the daredevil but I learned long ago that my interests and that of my friends can be very different from those of the public at large.

I imagine if a Western New Yorker is home Friday night, he or she will be watching on one of the channels carrying it.

I was confused by hearing the plans of local TV stations to carry the Wallenda Walk, which will be part of a three-hour ABC special airing nationally at 8 p.m. ET.  ABC is calling the first hour Megastunts. The Greatest Stunts … Ever. The final two-hour program is called Megastunts: Man on Wire: Live from Niagara.

This from an ABC release on Wallenda: “I am very challenge-driven person,” (Wallenda) said. “Don’t tell me, ‘It can’t be done,’ because I’ll find a way to do it.” After months of work and a time-consuming negotiation, the Ontario Parks Commission approved a one-time exemption in February to allow Wallenda to attempt a single crossing, reversing the 128-year ban on stunts. The Niagara Parks Commission has specified that such feats can only be attempted once every two decades.”

 “The walk itself is expected to take approximately 30 to 40 minutes and is expected to draw thousands of spectators on the U.S. and Canadian sides, and boost tourism to the region leading up to and long after the historic event.”

Local TV is doing its booster-ism part. I thought Channel 7 would be the only station to carry the walk live locally because of its affiliation with ABC, but since have heard promotional plans by Channel 4 and Channel 2 to get in on the act.

How it that possible? According to Channel 4 General Manager Chris Musial, ABC’s “exclusive worldwide rights” mean it only has the national rights to the walk. Musial has been told by the Parks Commission he can carry the walk live on WNLO-TV’s 10 o’clock news. He added he probably will simulcast it on Channel 4 at 11 p.m. if it is still going on. Channel 2 has said on air that it plans to stream the walk live on WGRZ.com as well. Channel 2 also plans to carry it live on its 10 p.m. newscast on WNYO-TV.

In any event, the Buffalo audience should be, as the local car guy says, “HUGE.”

Nationally, I’m not so sure what to expect. ABC isn’t taking a Wallenda-sized risk. The program airs on Friday night, which is where network TV generally sends programs to die. It is one of the lowest viewing nights of the week, along with Saturday.

The national prime time network competition isn’t much of a threat. NBC is carrying repeats of low-rated comedies and a two-hour edition of Dateline. CBS is airing Undercover Boss and repeats of CSI: NY and Blue Bloods. Fox is carrying repeats of House and Bones and the CW is carrying repeats of Nikita and Supernatural.

So the Wallenda Walk should dominate nationally as long as viewers aren’t bothered by the long wait before the walk starts after 10 p.m.

There has been some local criticism of ABC forcing Wallenda to be tethered, which substantially reduces his — and the network’s — risk.

I can’t see how ABC could have done anything else. There is an old joke about the lengths that TV will go to get an audience. The joke goes that networks will eventually air live executions to get an audience — and that Fox will eventually air live naked executions.

ABC smartly didn’t want to risk coming close to achieving that level of exploitation if disaster struck. It should be applauded, rather than condemned for the safety measure.

The big question is whether the sentence in ABC’s release about the promotional and tourism benefits for Niagara Falls will become a reality.

I have no idea. I will say that The Office gave the Falls quite a promotional boost a few seasons ago when the heavily-watched episode in which Jim and Pam got married in the Falls aired. I’m not aware of any significant boost in tourism after that.

Understandably, the local media is heavily invested in the Wallenda Walk. The local TV stations are walking all over themselves in promoting it. And The Buffalo News carried a front-page story about it Sunday and five more pages of stories in the Spotlight section.

Are they overplaying it? I have no idea. It will be interesting to see next week if the local TV ratings measure up to the hype about the Walk or if they illustrate the media slipped up by giving viewers and readers more than they wanted to see or read about the “megastunt.”

Read more by Alan Pergament at stilltalkinTV.com

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