When did a news job start requiring death-defying acts?

By Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) - Ann Curry bungee-jumps off a bridge in England on live television, screaming in exhilaration and fear. Chris Cuomo kisses the pavement after leaping off a casino roof while tethered to safety cables.

And Meredith Vieira really did go jump in a lake. In Vermont. In February.

What's going on here? Since when did a willingness to perform death-defying acts join glib interviewing skills and an ability to appear empathetic on demand as requirements for a job in morning television?

Cuomo, ABC's "Good Morning America" newsman, looked like he'd rather have been anywhere else as he waited to jump off the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City last week. Afghanistan in the winter? Sure. Anything!

His colleagues watched from the comfort of their Times Square studio, even taking a call with advice from drowsy magician David Blaine.

Keep your eyes on the horizon, he said. Pretend you're an eagle. Don't forget to breathe.

Thanks, Dave.

Cuomo kept his hands by his head in the universal gesture of horror as he plunged. When the cables stopped him just short of the ground, he rose his arms triumphantly.

"I've never felt anything like that," he said, "and hopefully I'll never feel anything like it again."

There was less obvious fear on Vieira's face as she prepared to run into Lake Champlain in Burlington during the "Today" show's jaunt to Vermont last week. She wasn't alone; it was the annual Penguin Plunge benefiting the Special Olympics, and in that spirit Vieira wore a penguin hat. Ice chunks floated in the 33-degree water.

She ran in about waist-deep then dipped her head in. To prove her toughness, she dipped again while heading toward shore.

"Next year - Matt Lauer," she shouted.

Doubtful. Her partner may go around the world every spring, but he wanted no part of a freezing lake.

Taking on a dare, getting out of your comfort zone. Morning show producers figure it makes great television, like during the recent series where "Today" personalities tried extreme sports. Vieira zorbed - that is, rolled down a hill within an inflatable ball. Lauer kite-boarded. Al Roker hang-glided.

The series culminated just before Christmas when Curry jumped off England's Transporter Bridge, narrated by a bemused Tom Hanks in the show's New York studio.

Cuomo's leap was part of ABC's similar "I Dare You" series. Cancer patient Robin Roberts doffed her wig in public, but wisely stayed on the ground. Diane Sawyer has a particularly heated idea that will be announced Monday.

There's no complicated reason for the stunts. It helps the audience connect to the personalities they see every day, said Jim Murphy, "Good Morning America" executive producer.

"You should see the amount of e-mails that Robin and Chris got from what they did," Murphy said. "It's an overwhelming response from the audience. And, sometimes it makes more people watch. In the end, that's what we're in the business of."

The day Curry bounced at the end of a long rubber line 6.3 million people watched "Today." During the other four days that week, the NBC show averaged 5.5 million viewers, said Nielsen Media Research.

Curry has actually distinguished herself with some daring and important reporting from Africa the past couple of years. Will she be remembered for that or as the butt of Washington Post columnist Lisa de Moraes' memorably nasty joke when announcing Curry's jump: "Sadly, she will be attached to a bungee cord, but you can't have everything"?

It's a safe bet that Murphy, who was the longtime chief of the "CBS Evening News," never asked Dan Rather to jump off a building - even if there were days he wanted to.

One could wonder what such stunts do for the reputations of each participant as journalists.

"Oh, please," said veteran morning show producer Steve Friedman. "You're not going to go there, are you?"

Should the trend continue, it leaves rich possibilities for the imagination. Roker dipped into a vat of boiling oil (properly hazmat-suited, of course)? Harry Smith running off a cliff in the hope that netting will catch him? Julie Chen set loose in an angry den of "Big Brother" rejects?

Maybe the morning shows, already fierce competitors behind the scenes, can bring it on for the cameras. How about Lauer and Sawyer in a steel-cage match for the right to interview Britney Spears?

But that's just a jumping off point.