USA TODAY - Climber Joby Ogwyn will scale the summit of Mt. Everest and then jump off it in a wing suit, on live TV, worldwide.
Discovery Channel's next daredevil stunt, due in May, is the latest live spectacle, a can't-miss-it event engineered for the age of social media. It's the same urgency that delivered a record 112.2 million viewers to Sunday's Super Bowl; 18.6 million to NBC's The Sound of Music in December; and sharp ratings increases to the Grammys and Golden Globes over the past five years, even as prime-time network ratings slid.
Despite a new thirst for DVRs and on-demand viewing -- where everything is available anytime and shared experiences are limited - events bring added currency to TV, experts say, in part by sparking chatter on Twitter and Facebook that fuels more interest.
"There's an element of a spectacle, and it's live," says Todd Gordon, U.S. director of ad firm Magna Global. "You want to either rip it apart or say it's the greatest thing ever, as it happens. It's a basic human need to feel part of a community." He says social media has proved "transformative" to awards shows, so networks are adding still more of them to the ranks of televised events.
"Having the opportunity for that communal experience is absolutely what's driving live (events) now," adds Eileen O'Neill, Discovery's group president. The network snared 13 million viewers (and a million tweets) last June for Skywire Live with Nik Wallenda, the most-watched program in the network's history, and plans two more stunts with the tightrope walker, the first due late this year.
Discovery has aired other live specials, including Felix Baumgartner's space jump in October 2012, and rival National Geographic Channel plans its own Live From Space special March 14, as cameras follow astronauts orbiting in the International Space Station. And live TV has thrived in competition-reality shows from American Idol to Survivor's finale reunion; sitcom episodes from 30 Rock to Hot in Cleveland; and companion talk shows airing after top cable dramas such as The Walking Dead.
Ogwyn, 39, was the youngest to climb Mt. Everest when he scaled it for the first time in 1999. But the latest stunt, beamed on live TV, has been a dream. "I couldn't think of anything more exciting in the world than to climb up the tallest mountain and jump off and fly away," he says.
The two-hour special will show the last half-hour of Ogwyn's climb, his gear change in a small tent and his three-stage jump, covering an expected five miles in 10 minutes, to a parachute landing in a dry lake bed. Fifteen cameras, some mounted in his custom wing suit, will capture the action.
The unpredictability of live events adds to their appeal but often makes for logistical nightmares.
"Doing it live obviously adds a tremendous amount of pressure on me to arrive at the summit at exactly the right time," he says.
But extreme cold, low air pressure and high altitudes create planning hurdles. "We're not going to know until a couple days ahead of time when this is going to happen," O'Neill says, narrowing the date to mid-May, early in the climbing season.
As with Wallenda's walk - both are produced by NBC's Peacock Productions - there will be a minimum 10-second delay in case of calamity, and hosts are handed scripts to account for any eventuality.
"Nothing untoward or insensitive was ever going to be broadcast," says Howard Swartz, Discovery's executive producer, who admits the uncertainty "plays a huge part" in its appeal. "I wouldn't want to call it a morbid curiosity, but you don't know what's going to happen, and you want to experience that live: Will he make it or won't he make it?"
If he does, what's next? "BASE jumping and wing suit flying are very dangerous," Ogwyn says. "I would say this would be the pinnacle of my career. In some ways it's kind of hard to top this."
But TV networks will surely try. The NFL is shopping a new package of Thursday night games, NBC is planning a live Peter Pan special in December and other live projects are in the works.