His career in shepherding live, high-octane events began decades ago and has survived the downturn in popularity of such fare. Now, live is back in style and, Mischer says, is being driven to new heights by social media that are boosting the ratings as they make viewing an even more powerful shared experience. He explains why we love these big live-event shows, what it’s like to produce them, how that has changed and what he sees ahead.
Don Mischer just might be TV’s undisputed king of the live TV event. His credits includes three Academy Awards telecasts, 11 Emmy Awards shows (plus this year’s Emmys scheduled for Aug. 25 on NBC), eight People’s Choice Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors, various Olympic opening ceremonies, Super Bowl halftime shows starring Prince, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen — and many, many more. His success has been underscored by 15 Emmy awards, 10 Directors Guild awards and a Peabody.
Back in the 1970s and into the 1980s, he specialized in primetime specials with a wide range of entertainers — from Barbara Mandrell and Nell Carter to the Muppets and Mikhail Baryshnikov. His career is as varied as it is long. He has directed episodes of scripted series like It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and Murder, She Wrote.
His most recent efforts include the Billboard Music Awards, seen on ABC in May, and Comedy Central’s all-star tribute to Don Rickles, also in May.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Adam Buckman, Mischer, 74, says the best is still to come, now that the broadcast networks have “rediscovered” the power of live-event TV specials. You can credit social media, he says. Twitter, Facebook and the like enhance the communal “experience” of watching live events on TV and boost the ratings. That can only mean that more such live shows are on the way, he predicts.
An edited transcript:
Some broadcast network executives, particularly those at NBC who have embarked on the production of live musicals such as last season’s Sound Of Music, seem to have come to the realization that live-event programming represents a unique strength for network television. Do you agree?
I do. It’s been a trend that those of us who do this kind of television have been noticing over the last three years. Networks are struggling to maintain their audiences and for a long period of time, [to] those of us who do these specials, [the feeling was that] no one cared much about what we were doing. We were kind of patted on the shoulder and told, ‘You guys go over and do your Christmas specials or your one-off specials or whatever these things are, and we will do the stuff where all the real money is,’ which is in series where the back end is worth all this and all that. But we have noticed that what’s happened, I think because of the whole explosion on the social network, is that the experience of watching events live can be shared socially and that really enhances the viewing experience for those people who are watching.
I think [this new level of social engagement] is at least partially responsible for [the ratings growth of live events on television]. In the last three to three-and-a-half years, most of the live-event shows we have done, almost all of them, have gone up every year something like 7% in viewership, some 10%. The Billboard Awards, which we produced last year, was up 22%. So people are watching these shows.
How has the rise of social media impacted the way you produce live events?
The first year that I directed the Oscars , I remember getting results after the show in which they said that 57% of the Oscar audience was watching something else online on their computer, iPad, cell phone — what we call the second-screen experience — and that’s gone up. I directed the Oscars the year before last , and it had gone up to like 60-something-percent. So the second-screen experience is really, really important. I remember one year when Angelina Jolie came out with a long beautiful elegant black dress, it was really just strikingly beautiful, and then stuck her right leg out of the dress, that became [a much talked-about moment]. And when Jennifer Lawrence, the last time I directed [the Oscars], slipped on the steps going up [on stage], I had a handheld camera on her.
Those are the things that people who are watching talk about on the social networks. They’re not watching the Oscars on that second screen. They’re communicating. They’re exchanging opinions about the show and they’re determining whether they liked it or not too.
So, if the ratings are going up, what does this mean for the TV industry? Does it mean a greater effort on the part of network programmers to contrive even more live event programs?
Without any question. Four years ago, there was no music [show] in the month of May in this country. I don’t mean like The Voice or American Idol, but I mean in terms of big, high-profile, live specials. There were none on in May. Then four years ago, The Billboard Awards — and we were involved in that because we produced that with the Prometheus TV group — came back and we started to build an audience. So now we have that show in May and that’s a mega three-hour live show, an entire night of primetime television on ABC and it’s increased in ratings every year. Now you have iHeartRadio. iHeart decided to [enter] the awards show [arena] and they came on the first week in May [on NBC].
More and more people are trying to start up award shows and recognition shows where they would have nominees and winners, and attract stars. There are more and more of them. And a lot of people are saying, “Oh, my God, we have too many award shows as it is. Why do we have more and more award shows? It’s really getting silly.” Well, the reason is, that people are watching them and as long as people watch. … You know, the networks used to have, like, two or three big tent-pole shows a year — CBS would have the Country Music Awards and they would have the Grammys, and ABC had the Oscars and the American Music Awards. NBC had the Golden Globes.
But now there’s more and more and more. For us who produce them it means we may have more business and more work, which is fine. I can tell you that it also makes it harder to book these programs because the same artists are in demand for so many of these shows, on the music shows especially, people like Pharrell Williams, Beyonce. Katie Perry, Bruno Mars. Everybody wants them.
What are the characteristics that make for the most compelling must-watch live TV events?
I think there are many elements that go into a mix. You want people appearing on the show who are popular and loved. If it’s a music show, you want popular, familiar music and you want artists that are breaking and emerging and are fresh. Younger people tend to watch these shows, demographically, and the pacing of the show has got to be fast. We live in a world where there’s a lot of hyperactivity. Young people today can look at two or three screens for things that are happening and track all three of them. When you play slow songs on any show that you do, it is harder, when you look at the minute-by-minute ratings, to keep your audience with you. When you’re doing upbeat dancing, active acrobatic, explosive, dynamic performances, people tend to watch.
From a production standpoint, what goes into producing a live-event show so that it will be an emotional experience for the viewer?
Well, you can have a music show where artists come and simply perform their latest hit and that’s going to be popular. But if you can do something where a song is sung and there’s a particular reason for it or it follows a particularly emotional story, or maybe it’s leading into a story, you can enhance the power of that song immeasurably by trying to find the emotional thing. You know, way back in the beginning of my career, I did something called Motown 25 [in 1983] where Michael Jackson first did the moonwalk. It was produced by Suzanne De Passe and I directed it.
And those people got together and talked about what it was like to be African American in the late ’50s and early ’60s and what it was like to record music at the Hitsville studio in Detroit in a garage, and that music with Smokey [Robinson] and the Temptations and the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye and all these people, what it was like when that music began to hit. I mean every song that was sung had some kind of an emotional connection or story to it and that’s one reason why that show has kind of lived on. So if you can find it and if it’s sincere, emotion really, really helps.
Give us an example of a live event you produced where you really felt something could go wrong, but instead came out even better than you planned.
Prince. When it was raining in Miami at that Super Bowl [in 2007, Super Bowl XLI], we were terrified. I was so scared for the first 45 seconds as the rain was coming down and the dancers were wearing nine-inch spiked heels and I had these nightmares of them falling and what do we do? Do we stop and carry them off or do we just dance over the top of them? What are we going to do if this happens? You know, that kind of stuff. And 45 seconds or a minute into the rain, I suddenly said to myself this is a blessing. This is the most ethereal incredible environment. We could never have created this.
You know, the rain put droplets on the lenses. Steam was floating across the field and when Prince sang Purple Rain at the end, we were able to turn purple lights on in the rain. I mean, it was just one of those things where what we would normally have anticipated would be a real difficult situation — the guitars shorting out, amplifiers blowing out up. But it turned out to be magical and those are just the things that happen when you do live television. You bring all these elements together and things usually go reasonably well. But in the end, you don’t have a lot of control once you’re on the air.
What are some of the most significant improvements or advancements in live-TV technology that you have seen in your career?
One thing is that the camera lenses and the cameras themselves are so incredible now. We used to have to have 150 or 160 foot-candles of light on a stage in the middle of a stadium for the Super Bowl halftime show to get imagery that would be good and clean at home when you are watching it. And that’s gone down now to, like, 20 foot-candles. So we don’t have to light it as much as we used to and that’s made a gigantic difference.
The way we record music and can control music in terms of pitch control, rhythm control, click tracks, all of this kind of stuff, has made the quality of the sound really so superior and that’s very much enhanced the viewing experience because when the sound is really good, it effects the visualization as well. And everything is computerized now in terms of editing. We can send it to each other on our computers now and it’s in high-definition. We used to have to transport tapes and DVDs and all this kind of stuff back and forth and it’s all instant now.
What impact has the rise in the importance of live streaming of events had on what you do? As a producer of live events, are you responsible for the live-stream versions as well?
No, no. Generally we will help the people that are doing the live stream. We cooperate because we want it all to work. Sometimes they put cameras where we are — in the control rooms or at a producers table or the makeup room or the writers room — and they stream that and in those instances, we may help light those environments. We help them place those cameras, but generally there’s another unit that basically does the live stream.
Two questions on futuristic technology that’s actually here now. One is, producing in 4K. Is that a necessity these days or is it something that lies in the near future?
I don’t know. I must say I don’t know about 4K. I have seen 4K. I know what it does, and I know how it looks, which is remarkable. As each of these new things comes down the pipe, some are going to connect and some may not connect as much. We knew that high-definition was going to be a major thing that would live on forever. When 3D came, a lot of us were not really sure that that was going to catch on and my feeling is that 3D has not caught on very much. 3D is an example of where the technology affects the content because people who shoot in 3D are constantly trying to stick burning torches into your face and they want to use that depth. [But] if you use that too much, it begins to take away from the credibility of the storytelling. So some of these things work and some don’t. So with 4K, I really don’t know.
The other technical advancement is the use of drones and apparently the FCC has granted some Hollywood producers the right to use them in production. Do you see any potential for drones in producing live events?
Well, I have definitely looked at them. I am doing a show in November in which I am considering using one, but I have been reading about it and I saw what happened in Los Angeles when the fans that were celebrating the Kings [which won the NHL’s Stanley Cup in June] throwing stuff at a drone and crashed it.
You have done so many different kinds of live programming — awards shows, concerts, Super Bowl halftimes, the Kennedy Center Honors. How does, say, an awards show differ from a Super Bowl halftime show, or is there some basic thing you do the same in all of them?
No you don’t. Awards shows have a different objective. As a producer, the biggest thing you’re doing with an awards show — like we’re doing the Emmys coming up on NBC — is that you want to serve the needs of the organization, in this case, the Television Academy. They want the show to respect all categories of awards. To the Motion Picture Academy, the makeup award or the sound mixing award is just as important as the best picture, and best actor, and best director award.
And so you have to make sure that the real reason that these things exist is protected and presented in the most interesting way to an audience that by and large, when it comes to the Oscars, there are only five or six awards that they really care about — the four acting awards, the directing award and the best film. But there are 24 awards given. The other 18 are not of great interest. They are worthy awards and those people deserve Oscars, but the viewers are not really invested in them, and they’re not household names or anything. So, you know, that’s the difference.
By contrast, something like the Olympic ceremonies or Super Bowl halftime show is just pure enjoyment and entertainment.