Has there been more compelling, live reality television than what took place Sunday as Felix Baumgartner, a former Austrian paratrooper, made history with a free fall from 24 miles above planet Earth? One might have to harken back to the actual lunar landing for more incredible images, suspense and mastery of science and aeronautical engineering.
Broadcast live on the Discovery Channel and streamed with a one-minute delay on YouTube, the space age daredevil rode a capsule tethered to a helium balloon to 128,000 feet before stepping out onto a platform, framed by the outline of the Earth, and then jumping. Over the next several minutes, Baumgartner would reach a maximum velocity of over 830 mph, or Mach 1.24, becoming the first human to break the sound barrier under his own power, before opening his parachute. The camera angles and images they brought to us were both heart stopping and breathtaking.
I just happen to be reading a recently released biography on 70s motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel and couldn’t help but be struck by how times have changed – in so many different ways. Of course, Knievel was far more ‘grounded’ in his exploits – yet was among the first to take to the air to jump rows of cars and trucks, along with a later attempt at the Snake River Canyon. Back then, however, TV coverage was always delayed, sometimes weeks, while film was edited and eventually shown during programming such as ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”. That was nothing of course to seeing the exploits of 1950s stunt pilots, flying experimental aircraft, typically shown many weeks if not many months to audiences via movie house newsreels.
The point is, modern technology and a consumer expectation to view things live (“right here, right now”) are bringing us unprecedented media experiences. Thankfully, they have been positive and successful – including Sunday and this past summer’s crossing of Niagara Falls by high-wire expert Nik Wallenda. Let us hope that a thirst for ratings and the dramatic does not portend the airing of more dangerous undertakings by those less trained, vetted and experienced. No one needs that kind of reality in our “TruTV”.