A version of this story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
History has resisted jumping on the live stunt bandwagon. But later this year, the network will mount its first live stunt with deadly escape artist and magician Robert Gallup – a Guinness World Record holder for a 1997 stunt during which he was manacled, handcuffed and chained then thrown from a C-123 transport place 18,000 feet above the Mojave Desert.
For History’s two-hour Houdini Live, which will air as a companion to its Adrien Brody Houdini miniseries (set to bow this fall), Gallup will attempt to free himself from a multilayered trap involving straitjackets, handcuffs and shackles at the bottom of a rock quarry lined with active explosives. History executive vp and general manager Dirk Hoogstra predicts it will be “jaw dropping.”
Stunts have served as an opportunity for cable networks to break into the live genre, which has become more valuable in an increasingly on-demand and time-shifted television landscape. Discovery — and ABC — have pulled in impressive numbers for their live tightrope walks with Nik Wallenda. ABC’s broadcast of Wallenda’s Niagara Falls walk in June 2012 peaked at more than 10 million viewers, while last summer 13 million people watched Discovery’s coverage of his 23-minute walk over the Grand Canyon’s Little Colorado Gorge.
Of course, as the cancelation of Discovery’s Everest Jump Live demonstrates, mounting live stunts can be a precarious endeavor. And Hoogstra notes that History has been cautious about entering a space where production costs can run into the millions of dollars for a couple hours of television that the network has no hopes of monetizing via reruns.
But he notes that the two-hour Houdini Live is an organic fit with the scripted Houdini and does not require a significant additional marketing spend in order to promote it.
“I don’t see [live stunts] as a long-term strategy,” adds Hoogstra. “For us, it’s more opportunistic. I’d rather spend on what could potentially be a new long-running series franchise.”