Eaten by an Anaconda? What's Behind the Rise in Go-Wrong TV

Eaten by an Anaconda - P 2014
Gowri Varanashi/Discovery Channel

Eaten by an Anaconda - P 2014

This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

TV viewers get their pick of potential catastrophes this December. Just days after Allison Williams careened about in a harness for NBC's Peter Pan Live! on Dec. 4, Discovery debuts Eaten Alive, a documentary about one man's trip through the digestive tract of a 17-foot anaconda.

The cable network's latest stunt isn't live — conservationist and star Paul Rosolie survived (enough) to do press — but its high-stakes premise represents the next iteration of event TV. Specials like Eaten Alive stand to deliver Discovery ratings spikes and one-off buzz in between Nik Wallenda's high-wire feats, the most recent of which pulled nearly 6 million viewers. "Since we did Nik's Grand Canyon walk [in 2013], we've been getting 10 or 15 stunt pitches a week," says Discovery programming vp Michael Sorensen. "The decision comes down to the priorities for the person doing it and the message behind it."

For Eaten Alive, the message is intended to be one of awareness for the anaconda's threatened Amazon habitat. But animal rights groups unsurprisingly have cried foul, which only has fueled conversation around the two-hour special. Execs and advertisers hope that viewers' morbid curiosity will elevate the stunt to Shark Week ratings.

"The potential for tragedy is a little bit severe, so there's always that degree of consideration," says Sam Armando of media buying firm SMG. "But there's a proven curiosity among viewers with events like these. It's the unexpectedness."