Networks Place Big Bets on Live Summer Specials

Why This Matters: ABC and cable networks are using non-sports live events to draw viewers inside when the weather’s nice.

When Nik Wallenda steps onto the high wire 25 stories above Times Square on ABC June 23, it represents yet another live special, as networks increasingly aim to corral viewers to tune in for day-and-date programming. Wallenda aims to walk 1,300 feet on the wire, with his sister, Lijana, starting from the opposite end and the siblings crossing mid-wire.

ABC is “doubling down,” in the words of Rob Mills, senior VP, alternative series, specials and late night, on live events. That includes last month’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” special, and perhaps a live musical.

“Our network doesn’t have the NFL,” Mills said. “These become our NFL.”

A number of networks are set to run bold live events. The same night the Wallendas traipse above Times Square, National Geographic Channel kicks off four-night Yellowstone Live, with the national park coming to life after a long winter, and a range of animals doing their thing. Evel Live 2 airs on History July 7, with fearless motocross athletes attempting harrowing stunts.

First Responders Live, a Dick Wolf show offering a peek at first responders as they answer emergency calls across the country, debuted on Fox June 12, and A&E ordered 10 additional episodes of Live PD spinoff Live Rescue, also offering a close-up of emergency responders, bringing the season-one total to 19 episodes.

Live programs are mostly DVR-proof and eminently social media-friendly, network executives say. Eli Lehrer, History executive VP and head of programming, mentions “the immediacy they bring and the excitement they generate for viewers. There’s an urgency to watch right now — you don’t want to miss it.”

High-Flying Wallendas

In 1928, the Great Wallendas performed in Madison Square Garden, and Nik Wallenda said he will pay homage to that performance nearly a century after it happened. “There’s something alluring about New York,” he said.

Adding intrigue to Highwire Live in Times Square with Nik Wallenda is Lijana, who will step onto the high wire for the first time since a 2017 incident where she fell 30 feet from one.

Executive producer Mark Bracco said watching such an event on the day after does not do it justice. “If you are not watching live, you miss something amazing that happens in the moment,” he said. “And you just can’t experience something like that in the same way if you watch it the next day.”

Dick Clark Productions is producing the event. Wallenda previously did high-wire stunts over Niagara Falls in 2012, which ABC News produced, and the Grand Canyon in 2013, which aired on Discovery. Mills cites Evel Knievel stunts that used to air on Wide World of Sports in saying that Wallenda is right at home on ABC. “It fits into the heritage of the network,” he said.

Evel Genius

Evel Live 2 will be filmed at the San Bernardino International Airport in California. Travis Pastrana did motorcycle stunts in Live 1, and co-hosts this summer, leaving the daredevil stuff to Vicki Golden and Axell Hodges. Golden will speed through a series of flaming boards, and Hodges plans to soar over two dozen trucks to break a record Knievel set in 1971. Later, he’ll aim to set the record for motorcycle jump distance, which stands at nearly 380 feet.

Evel Live 1 reached 14.5 million total viewers in live plus seven ratings, according to History, and 3.5 million in live plus same day. Lehrer called it “an incredible success for us.”

He promises bigger stuff in this summer’s three-hour special. “We learned a tremendous amount from a TV standpoint,” he said, “in terms of how to produce a live event.”

Park and Rec

Yellowstone Live is co-hosted by Josh Elliott and Chris Packham, with Jenna Wolfe the roving reporter. The event takes place across Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The 25 cameras capturing the action include a Burrow Cam, showing prairie dogs underground, and Bison Cam, affixed to the massive mammal. Yellowstone After Dark deploys thermal cameras to showcase the animal action at night.

Geoff Daniels, executive VP of global unscripted entertainment at National Geographic, promises a “bigger and bolder” event than last year’s. “We cover a bigger area, and have the ability to cover so many more intimate animal stories,” he said.

Social Grace

Daniels also promises a social media “takeover” for Yellowstone Live, and social is a giant part of what makes the live specials right for 2019. For its part, Evel Live had 103,000 social interactions last year, said History, citing Nielsen, “far and away the most social program” for the network last year, according to Lehrer.

While live events have their risks, whether it’s foul weather, flubbed lines or a motorcycle malfunction, executives said they are keen to bring more to their network. “It’s certainly a space we’re always looking at,” Lehrer said, noting that a couple are in development at History.

ABC may do a live musical as soon as in the fall, Mills said, likely something from the Disney library. It also plans to turn the Lear live special into an annual event.

National Geographic will depart Yellowstone Park to tackle Alaska Live next summer. “One of the beauties of live is, it’s a communal experience,” Daniels said. “It’s in the moment and it’s unpredictable. You saw it first — you didn’t hear about it.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.