Nik Wallenda's tightrope walk across Niagara Falls Friday night did exactly what both ABC and the towns of Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Niagara Falls, Ont. hoped it would: attract hordes of spectators.
ABC, which secured rights to the daredevil act, scored big, easily surpassing NBC, CBS and other broadcasters to hit a five-year ratings high for a Friday night. From 10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. -- when Wallenda crossed into the Canadian side of the falls to complete the stunt -- ABC netted 13.1 million viewers, according to preliminary Nielsen ratings.
The network's big gamble in producing a three-hour extravaganza around a 25-minute circus act paved the way for a repeat -- and chances are you won't have to wait too long. At the end of the broadcast, Wallenda announced that he has his eyes on another American wonder.
I just happen to have the permit to be the first person in the world to walk a tightrope over the Grand Canyon, he said. And we'll start up that process very soon.
Well, Nik, if you're looking for a network, I think I have one in mind, one of the ABC News hosts responded.
The self-proclaimed King of the High Wire spent almost two years obtaining the necessary permissions from Canada and the United States for the border-crossing feat at Niagara. Only after persistent lobbying of Canadian parks officials and an act of New York's legislature was the stunt finally approved.
Not only is it a dream, but we had to change two laws in two countries that were over 100 years old, Wallenda boasted last month, announcing the June 15 date.
Janice Thomson of Ontario's Niagara Parks Commission called the approval a unique one-time situation, telling any would-be copycats that they would only accept requests once every 20 years, assuming Wallenda's effort went off without a hitch. It did.
Enigma Research Corp. estimates that some one billion people witnessed Wallenda's walk worldwide -- a figure far beyond what the tourism boards on both sides of the border had anticipated.
Had Niagara Falls not fallen on hard times, it's unlikely that both Canada and the United States would have sprung for such a daring stunt. But, with the appeal of the honeymoon capital diving over the past 50 years -- along with half of the New York side's population -- they needed something big, something bold and something to remind people of Niagara's place in history.
So far, it looks as though it may have paid off.
If anyone stands to gain from the stunt, it's Niagara Falls, N.Y. The town faces far greater economic woes than its glitzy, Las Vegas-like Canadian neighbor and is in desperate need of a savior. But according to Frank Strangio, president of the Niagara Falls Hotel & Motel Association, the area's hotels did not completely sell out Friday for the historic walk.
John Percy of the Niagara Falls Tourism and Convention Corp. said that's OK.
An estimated 4,000 people watched the event from the U.S. side (compared to 125,000 over in Canada). Though the initial impact on hotel sales, restaurants and activities were indisputably great for the town where two of three residents subsist largely on welfare or social security, according to U.S. Census data, Percy believes it's the exposure that will be the lasting impact.
Everyone wants their destination on people's minds ... in every newspaper and on every TV station around the world. To me, that exposure is invaluable. I couldn't afford to purchase that kind of exposure. Our budget is not that large, he said.
The term Niagara Falls was trending on Twitter much of Friday night, and Percy said it will be the tourism board's job to make sure the natural icon remains in the public imagination.
New York State Senator George Maziaraz, who played a big role in allowing Wallenda to walk across the falls, agreed, saying the stunt was flawless and the city never looked better.
For first time, while I was walking around Niagara Falls, I noticed people felt good about [the city]; they felt good about themselves, he told the Niagara Gazette. One comment I was told was that it felt like the Canadian side.
This is about more than a one-day event, he added. Sure, it was a single event, but we can keep this thing going. There's a lot of potential.