As the world remembers the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, it's worth noting that the crisis over The Wall gave birth to "Reality TV."
But this show had far more dire consequences than being "banished from the house" or "voted off the island." These consequences involved life and death. It's a little remembered story but still reads like a thriller.
In 1962, two Italian students studying in West Berlin decided to build a tunnel underneath the border so their friends trapped in East Berlin could escape. There were several challenges. While the dirt near the canals of Berlin and the Spree River was easy to move, it was also prone to collapse. The tunnel, just a 150 yards long and about 4-5 feet high, would need to be propped up and reinforced. The work required hiring experienced engineers.
But the biggest challenge was raising the money for the project. Enter NBC News.
The network agreed to pay DM 50,000 up front for exclusive rights to the footage. The show would be called "The Wall." That also solved the students' money problems.
At the time, only the president of NBC and his assistant knew about the deal. There were agents of the Stasi, the East German secret police everywhere, and if authorities were tipped off, it would be certain death for the students, the camera crews and the escapees.
Forty-one students took part in the tunneling process, on both sides of the border. The project was delayed several weeks because of flooding.
Then, two of the volunteers were suspected of being Stasi agents. To protect the project, the students secretly changed the tunnel's destination without telling them.
NBC News provided them with walkie talkies, so the students on each side of the border could communicate.
On the night of the escape, one by one, the refugees arrived in the basement of a building just east of the Wall. Then the tunnel sprung a leak. The desperate escapees scrambled through the wet and muddy tunnel to freedom in the West. 29 people escaped that night. It was some of the most dramatic footage ever filmed of the Cold War crisis. The NBC News special earned several prestigious awards.
The only bad news was that the tunnel flooded and was never used again. The students hoped to be able to smuggle many more people before its existence was revealed on the NBC show.
And those two students suspected of being Stasi agents? Only after the Wall came down 27 years later and files were declassified, did they find out they were right. One of them was indeed an East German spy for the Stasi.