David Blaine Inhales, But It’s Shelley Ross Who’s Holding Breath

Before ABC producer Shelley Ross and stunt-magician David Blaine settled on having Mr. Blaine “drown himself alive” at Lincoln Center in a two-hour prime-time special, they considered a high-wire act.

“I kept saying to him, ‘There’s no big finish!’” Ms. Ross said. “‘You live on the high wire, you live on the high wire, you almost fall off the high wire, you stumble, presumably you sleep on the high wire. But what’s the big finish?’”

The program itself may stand as a big finish for Ms. Ross, who is at the end of her contract with the network, according to ABC sources. Ms. Ross, the former executive producer of Good Morning America, is not expected to sign a new one, sources said—leaving the dangerous and wildly over-budget magic show as the likely final act of a tumultuous career with ABC.

A former print reporter, Ms. Ross arrived at the network in 1989 to produce sensational celebrity-trial coverage. A decade later, she rose to the helm of the network’s beleaguered morning show, then two million viewers behind NBC’s Today. With a style one executive described as full of “moxie” and another as “fascistic,” she hauled it to within fighting distance of its competitor, was deposed in a murky coup in May 2004 and has been playing out her contract ever since.

In the midst of that quiet final spell, David Blaine called.

“There’s always been that sort of kindred spirit between David and me,” said Ms. Ross, who declined to discuss her contract or her history with the network. She disavowed any parallels between Mr. Blaine’s finale and her own. But she also said: “I always have admired not only his skill but his sense of showmanship.”

The two began brainstorming last summer and finally came up with a new idea featuring a suitably big finish: Mr. Blaine would lock himself, nearly naked, in an eight-foot transparent acrylic sphere filled with a finely calibrated partial-saltwater solution. He plans to remain there for a week, by the grace of tubes for breathing, eating and waste removal, communicating with passers-by through an advanced walkie-talkie system. On the last day, he intends to hold his breath for nine minutes, breaking a world record.

“I’m a little rundown from overtraining,” Mr. Blaine said in a brief phone call on April 28. “I just need to get relaxed and focused.”

Two days later, the day before he went in the tank, a relaxed and focused Mr. Blaine called Ms. Ross and told her he was giving her an early birthday present, she said. The master endurance artist, who has previously buried himself alive and frozen himself in ice at other prominent locations around Manhattan, would up the zazz-factor of her TV special a few notches by padlocking himself to the inside of the tank and spending those nine breathless minutes escaping from the chains.

Ta da!

Ms. Ross started her television career at NBC News before moving over to ABC, where she covered the O.J. Simpson case in 1994, booked Paula Jones to her first television interview on Primetime Live, and produced what her official network biography calls a “newsmaking 20/20 segment with correspondent Elizabeth Vargas advancing the JonBenet Ramsey story.”

She met Mr. Blaine in 1999, the same year she became the executive producer of Good Morning America, when he was doing his “Buried Alive” special on the Upper West Side. The ABC morning show was two million viewers behind the Today show at that point but about to begin an epic surge. Ms. Ross and Diane Sawyer, both early risers and relentless perfectionists, would pass by Mr. Blaine’s grave on their way to work at 3 a.m. and remark on his talents. “I’d send people to hold signs over saying ‘Will you do our show after?’” she said.

The following year, Mr. Blaine entombed himself for 61 hours in a six-ton block of ice and emerged live on ABC. Ms. Ross booked him on GMA, and the two became friendly enough that when Mr. Blaine began planning another feat this summer, his people called Ms. Ross and asked her if she would help. Ms. Ross jumped at the chance.

Once they came up with the concept, Mr. Blaine started training with Kirk Krack, a professional scuba instructor who specializes in static apnea, the art of competitive breath holding. Mr. Krack, whose team holds a combined 18 world records, started Mr. Blaine on an ambitious cardio-workout focused on acclimating his body to increased levels of carbon dioxide and decreased levels of oxygen. It takes tremendous physical and mental discipline to stop breathing for nine minutes, Mr. Krack said. “You don’t just sit there, take a deep breath and hold.”

Ms. Ross, meanwhile, scouted locations.

“We really wanted to do something that felt like Woodstock,” she said—which is why they chose Lincoln Center. Huh? “The traffic,” she said. “The people.”

Mr. Blaine finally entered his tiny aquarium at 1 p.m. on Monday, May 1, while a few hundred people—including two tenors and one baritone from the chorus of Parsifal—looked on.

“I don’t know what to think, honestly,” said Chris Carrico, one of the tenors. “I’d watch that on TV,” said Alex Magno, the baritone.

Nearby, a giant poster advertised the special. Designed to be as evocative of Houdini as possible, the poster features an image of Mr. Blaine chained to the inside of a bubble—suggesting the padlocks were not such a last-minute addition, but regardless—with the worlds “Failure Means a Drowning Death” scrolled across the bottom.

This, strictly speaking, is probably not true. For the next week, a full security detail will monitor Mr. Blaine at every moment, taking turns grabbing catnaps at their suite at the Hudson Hotel. Twenty-four people will be on alert during the breath-holding portion of the program, ready to pry open the globe if Mr. Blaine gives a distress signal and fish him out.

“We’ve done safety drills,” said Ms. Ross. “We have Roosevelt Hospital on alert. We have state-of-the-art medical equipment. We have monitors. We’ve tested the helmet he’s going to sleep in to make sure it doesn’t leak. He will be watched 24/7.”

“He’s not going to die,” said Mr. Krack, who is in charge of the watching.

This is what will happen to Mr. Blaine: For the first five minutes, according to his trainer, “he’ll go through a very, very euphoric sensation of relaxation as his body gets into a high relaxed state, like a state of intense meditation. Then, as his CO2 level starts to rise, his respiratory muscles will start to contract and he’ll have this insane urge to breathe. Most people would break at the two-minute mark.”

Harry Houdini once made it to three. The current world record-holder made it to 8 minutes and 58 seconds. David Blaine is aiming for nine.

Mr. Krack—who declined, citing confidentiality agreements, to say how long Mr. Blaine held his breath during trial runs—gives him a 25 percent chance.

Anne Farber, a pianist from the Upper West Side and a teacher at the Special Music School, gave him slightly more than that when she happened by on Monday afternoon.

“Is this an art installation?” she asked. “Are they advertising something?”

She would put music to it, whatever it is, she said—some Debussy, some hip-hop, “something quite contemporary.” When informed about the feat she was witnessing, Ms. Farber was hopeful, if unimpressed. “ABC is trying to get more viewers to watch?” she asked. “Oh, for God’s sake.”

Later that evening, Ms. Ross returned to Lincoln Square to check in on Mr. Blaine. As she stood by, admiring the merman in his tank, she said she was optimistic about the final act.

“It is genuinely not without risk,” she said via cell phone, “but we have just loaded up every precaution. It’s healthy, and we’re over-budget, which is like—you know, which falls on David Blaine’s shoulders. His career, everything. He’s putting it all on the line for this.”