|“The Flight of Icarus” by Jacob Peter Gowy|
A recent Times piece (“Risking a Life for TV Ratings,” NYT, 10/31/14) quotes the Discovery Channel’s Howard Swartz, who was executive producer of “Skyscraper Live With Nik Wallenda," as saying, “There is something just really compelling about watching people push themselves to the limit. There is an element of must see.There is an element of risk. There is an element of awe and danger and inspiration that is very compelling and relatable.” There is also an element of lunacy. Walking a tightrope blindfolded, 600 feet above ground with no net is a far cry from Ringling Brothers. One wonders what will be next in ratings wars. Under the theory that there’s always someone or thing bigger, stronger and more frightening, broadcasters are going to have to search for even more death defying stunts. Or perhaps the next stunt will be the opposite. Maybe some hapless soul who is down on his luck will star in “Botched Acrobatics” in which he or she will simply offer to jump out of a window with the cameras rolling. You hear about suicide, but not everyone has seen the kind of mess a falling body can make on a sidewalk. If this sounds like black humor that’s in bad taste, don’t be surprised if you find a hot new piece of reality TV that aims to break the death barrier. Maybe there will even be a program where people jump out of windows, and return in séances attended by their survivors not long after their bodies have been removed from the street. What seemed titillating and shocking enough to result in huge viewing audiences yesterday is likely to be looked on with apathy today. Few other mediums besides broadcast television require such an exponential increase in novelty. Deadline.com ran this headline after Wallenda attempted to repeat his earlier success, “Nik Wallenda Ratings: Wallenda Plunges in Second Highwire Walk For Discovery Channel” (Deadline.com, 11/3/14). In medieval times the spectacle of a convicted criminal being drawn and quartered was a popular attraction; in Puritan New England the sight of sinners in stocks provided a welcome distraction from the hard life of the early settlers. Will it be long before the networks seek out subjects who are willing to endure CIA torture techniques like waterboarding in order to create a ratings blitz? Will television record death by lethal injection the way the blood lust of the crowd, in l9th century England, was gratified by the hangings outside the Old Bailey?