Nik Wallenda’s High-Wire Act Kept Fans Glued to the TV

There are no atheists in foxholes. Nor, understandably, on a high wire strung 1,500 feet above a rocky river canyon. That’s what an estimated 13 million viewers learned last Sunday when aerialist Nik Wallenda traversed the 2.5-inch cable above the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon.

Photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel

Photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel

Wallenda, the seventh generation of the acrobatic troupe that came to be known as the Flying Wallendas — for decades one of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s most famous circus acts, and described by the Washington Post as, “The ultimate athlete, free of all law except gravity” — was holding his horizontal balancing pole but was also redundantly wired with two cameras and two microphones. The former provided viewers of the broadcast, on the Discovery Channel, with views facing forward and down — the two perspectives that Wallenda himself was likely most concerned with — as well as two microphones, all nestled in a sling-type vest worn underneath a blue Discovery Channel t-shirt.

Those microphones — a BSI MIC1500 transmitter paired with a Sennheiser MKE 2 lavaliere working in the 1.5 GHz spectrum and used as the primary audio source, and a Lectrosonics Venue series and UCR411A Digital Hybrid wireless mic receivers with SMQV body-pack transmitters working in the standard UHF spectrum — conveyed a nearly non-stop dialogue between Nik Wallenda and his father/coach, Terry Troffer, and an equally intense monologue directed at Jesus Christ, beseeching the Son of God to quell wind gusts and generally thanking Him for having his back as he walked across the canyon without a net or a safety harness. All the audio, including IFB from Lectrosonics IFBT4 transmitters and R1a body-pack receivers, was available for the broadcast.

“In my twenty-five years of doing this it was definitely the most unique and riveting event I’ve ever done,” says Clay Underwood, customer applications engineer at Broadcast Sports, Inc., which provided RF and communications for the show. “I never once looked away from the picture.”

Photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel

Photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel

Wallenda never works with a net — among his stunts (his preferred terminology) are a Guinness-world-record setter in for the longest distance and greatest height ever traveled by bicycle on a high-wire — 150 feet out on a high-wire from the roof of Newark, NJ’s Prudential Building — suspended 20 stories over the street, and various acts on sway poles, incline motorcycles, skywalks, silks, the cloud swing, and, at one time, even with a dog act on the high-wire. “We’ve performed nearly every circus or daredevil skill there is,” Wallenda told me in a 2008 interview about his rigging apparatus.

The show was handled by NBC-owned Peacock Productions using All Mobile Video’s triple-expando Titan truck, fitted with a Studer Vista 8 digital console. In addition to the feed to the Discovery Channel’s cablecast, a separate signal was sent to Shadow Mountain, a Navajo Nation location five miles away where spectators watched on a large video screen and outdoor audio. BSI also provided RF links and management for a series of audio elements including handheld talent microphones and shotgun microphones positioned around either side of the canyon edge for effects and natural sound — mostly wind and the occasional bird squawk as well as audio from a SteadiCam working the finish area of the event.

But it was the conversations that Wallenda was having — with mentors real and ethereal — that were most absorbing, with any word Wallenda uttered potentially his last. Underwood says there were strict instructions from the show producer to cut all audio and video in the event that Wallenda slipped off the wire. “We were told that if he were to ‘separate’ from the wire, we were to shut it all down immediately,” says Underwood, a reminder of the stakes in this show. “It was the longest twenty-three minutes I’ve ever experienced.”