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Even with Disneyfication, stunt made for great TV


That's the name to remember about the broadcast of Friday evening's high-wire extravaganza in Niagara Falls, every bit as much as Wallenda.

ABC is owned by the Disney Corporation. And what we saw taking up an entire Friday evening of ABC prime time was the Disneyfication of daredevilment.

It was a megastunt in corporate harness. But let's be honest. Tether or no tether, it made for spectacular television -- magnificent night pictures of one of the most extraordinary sights on earth dwarfing the man on the wire, unintentional and unexpected comedy as Wallenda was peppered with questions in his earpiece from inane interviewers and his nagging father Terry Troffer, and a running conversation with God all the way across, caught by his microphone.

Let Bill Maher make jokes if he wants. He's never going to be walking a wire across Niagara Falls.

Cynics might well have expected a climactic Disney bluebird to land on Nik Wallenda's shoulder after his grueling walk across Niagara Falls. It wouldn't have surprised them, no doubt, at that point, if he'd sung "a dream is a wish, your heart makes."

But let's all admit it was, in its actual walk across the falls, amazing to look at.

George Stephanopoulos could rhetorically ask Friday morning audiences "could it be the most daring stunt ever?"

In spite of its extraordinary beauty, the answer, in truth, probably had to be "no."

But then there was no way that one of the big three TV networks -- the one owned by the Disney Corporation, the brand name in "family entertainment" and, by universal inside show business assay, the most over-controlling empire in America's Entertainment Industrial Complex -- would sit still for Nik Wallenda's walk being every bit as "daring" as he originally created it to be.

So the dramatic suspense preceding canny watchers of Friday night's overhyped spectacle became simple: Will he untether?

Or stay tethered?

And if it was the latter, why on earth, we wondered, would millions of us be glued to this zenith of corporate daredevilment?

And if it had been the former, would he make it without injury?

We got a beautiful answer on the tube, despite ABC's intrusive inanities.

To be both honest and generous, they've done splendid things for decades on the ABC network. And there has long been a world of wonders slathered with the Disney "brand," from the heavenly artificial sands created specifically for the beaches at Disney World resorts to such Pixar movies as "WALL-E" and "Up."

What we were essentially watching with such a magnificent payoff Friday night was a classic clash of "family values" -- how they might be defined by a network owned by the Disney megalith (whose family entertainment "brand" is the most famous and profitable anywhere) versus the way they might be defined by the Wallendas, a venerable show business dynasty whose trademark is to work without a net (and who have, therefore, suffered fatalities and calamities accordingly).

Seven Wallendas perished in the family business, said ABC's "GMA" news anchor Josh Elliott, who co-anchored the Wallenda-thon Friday night with Hannah Storm. That included the family's 20th century patriarch Karl, who fell off a high wire in 1978 and plunged 121 feet to his death.

He just wasn't strong enough to hold on, Nik admitted to ABC's camera before the walk. It would never have happened if he'd been the Karl Wallenda of 20 years before.

What I've been wondering for weeks now is: Would the Karl Wallenda of 20 years before have freely given up the family's rejection of nets and tethers in exchange for all that big network and sponsor money and a prime-time TV berth?

"I always wanted to out-do everyone else," Nik Wallenda said in one interview. In corporate support and prime-time attention, he certainly set the Wallenda family record.

But in any basic clash of "family values," Disney won over the Wallendas. Roll over Sleeping Beauty and tell Jiminy Crickett the news.

"Never in the history of my career have I worn a safety tether," Wallenda said minutes before beginning his stunt.

But then he added: "I respect my partners."

It was the basic nature of the walk that ABC had to give us a lot of commentary by ESPN types from within the Disney Broadcast empire (you expected maybe Diane Sawyer or Katie Couric?) -- Storm and Elliott.

Those pictures of the falls couldn't help but make it what it's always been, one of the most magnificent sights any of us are ever likely to see.

Never mind that the first hour's version of the Top 20 Megastunts wasn't quite as good as most things on the Spike TV network. The walk itself, even in harness, was great TV spectacle.

I don't know if he read what Charles Dickens wrote about first seeing Niagara Falls in the 19th century. But I'll bet he understood it after those 26 minutes on the wire:

"Always does the mighty stream appear to die as it comes down, and always from the unfathomable grave arises that tremendous ghost of spray and mist, which is never laid: which has haunted this place with the same dread solemnity since Darkness brooded on the deep, and that first flood before the Deluge -- Light -- came rushing on Creation at the word of God."

It was nice, courtesy of Nik Wallenda, to have intimations of that Niagara Falls back again.