The ratings for ABC's tightrope walk are in, and the stunt pulled huge numbers, proving that people will flock to television we can all talk about.
Nik Wallenda's high wire walk was part of ABC's 20/20 broadcast on Friday night. The New York Times' Brian Stelter reports the event, "lifted the network to a first-place finish for the night and provided evidence that there’s an audience out there hungry for big television stunts." The broadcast took up three hours of ABC's programming Friday night, and "on any given minute between 9 and 11 p.m., 10.1 million viewers were watching." When Wallenda finished, 13.1 million viewers were watching according to Nielsen's numbers. The show produced the highest Friday night rankings on ABC in five years. Fridays are not big for television, which is why Community fans were so concerned when NBC announced it was moving to Friday nights. For ABC, they won the ratings battle for the night, probably generated a huge amount of advertising revenue, and dominated the evening's conversation.
As Stelter points out, the stunt produced a huge amount of conversation on social media. Fans were encouraged to Tweet using the #WalkTheWire hashtag while they tuned in. The stunt took 25 minutes, but that was preceded by two hours and half hours of pre-game programming that got the conversation started early. There were, "353,000 messages on Twitter about the high-wire walk between 10 and 11 p.m.," and when Wallenda dismounted onto Canadian soil there were 14,000 tweets per minute talking about the event.
If you're NBC, CBS, or Fox, you're probably looking at those numbers with green eyes. It'd be hard not to be envious of the ratings ABC managed to pull on a typically disappointing night of TV. At the end of Friday's broadcast Wallenda announced he had the permit to walk across the Grand Canyon, and ABC is apparently warm to the idea of carrying it. How could they not be after Friday? Whether or not it will renew a cultural interest in daredevil stunts is hard to tell. But what the stunt proves is people will watch big spectacle television.
Whether it's a stunt, or a Mad Men finale, or the Royal Wedding, we watch partly out of curiosity , and partly because we don't want to be left out of the conversation. We want to be able to contribute to the hive mind's conversation about big, shared cultural events. Think of how everyone in your Twitter feed makes awful jokes when the Grammys come around. Everything is "social" now, even our television. Everyone wants to make the best joke, the wittiest riff, or the snarkiest dig. More than anything else, no one wants to be left out.