Ray Richmond is an AwardsLine contributor
Few living professionals have produced more live-event TV than Don Mischer, who has manned the controls at everything from Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony telecasts to Olympic Games opening ceremonies, Super Bowl halftime shows and, in 2009, a presidential inaugural celebration. Mischer — who will preside over his 13th Primetime Emmy show as producer in September –spoke with AwardsLine about the unpredictable nature of live TV, the specific challenges of the Emmys, and why he’ll be forever grateful to a fellow named Bucky Gunts.
Don Mischer: We’ve actually been on the Emmys since the beginning of June. We had several meetings with Jimmy (Kimmel) and crafted a rundown even before the nominations were announced. But in many ways, the show is shaped by the nominated work.
AwardsLine: Isn’t it frustrating to have to balance the requirement of handing out 26 or 27 awards with trying to do something that’s actually entertaining?
Mischer: Frustrating is not the word. It is, after all, an awards show. As producers, the thing we try hardest to do is keep it briskly paced and humorous. And it’s interesting, if you start the show with a certain kind of pace, it begins to pervade the evening. It manifests itself in things like people getting to the stage quicker. People don’t speak as long, because there’s a certain rhythm where it’s all short and to the point. That makes the evening fly by.
Related: Q&A: Jimmy Kimmel On Hosting Emmys
AwardsLine: Even so, wouldn’t you greatly reduce the number of awards presented if you could?
Mischer: Oh, I definitely would, because that enables you to present more entertainment. There are some awards shows that have really evolved into being primarily entertainment shows. I think the Grammys give out only like nine awards now. And it’s terrific. The Tonys, it’s the same way, they now give maybe 10 or 11 awards the entire evening and do much more live entertainment onstage. But, of course, it can’t be that way for us. We’re serving two masters: The TV Academy and the broadcasting network. One has an agenda of honoring everyone both above and below the line in a fair and equitable way. The other wants to entertain the audience and get the highest possible ratings. So we’re always having to walk that tightrope to satisfy both needs.
Mischer: [Laughs] That kind of thinking gets everyone in trouble. These are critical people in our business obviously, though to most viewers at home they aren’t races where they have much invested. So a few years ago the TV Academy tried to come up with an alternative plan to split the categories between the Creative Arts show and the primetime telecast, but as you may recall that created some havoc.
AwardsLine: So now you’re left having to tell winners that they should limit the biggest moment of their lives to, what, 16 seconds or so?
Mischer: No, we generally give them a full 45 seconds. Even limiting them to that isn’t easy. I know how unfair it sounds. But we’re dealing with the reality of television. Now with the Oscars, the precedent has been that you can run over time. I mean, there have been Oscar shows that have run four hours. But on the Emmys you don’t have that option. In letters to nominees that we send out four weeks before the show, we explain the time parameters and ask them to speak from the heart.
AwardsLine: How about when they speak from a list they’ve just pulled out?
Mischer: We try to really discourage that. I can tell you that when an award winner gets up there and pulls out a list, and you’re looking at the faces of the people in the audience on camera, you see them sag.
AwardsLine: What’s your favorite moment from all of the Emmy
shows you’ve produced?
Mischer: You know, it’s impossible to pick just one. But I will say this: When it comes to live television and awards shows, the one element that you cannot plan for is what the acceptances and the reactions are going to be. When I produced the show two years ago and Jimmy Fallon was hosting, Ricky Gervais presented the award for directing in a variety special. One of the nominees was a guy named Bucky Gunts. Ricky came out and just started to riff on Bucky’s name. Things like, “Bucky Gunts. I didn’t know you could even say that name on television.” Then he opens the envelope up and, of course, Bucky wins! And it became this raucous kind of moment on the stage. That was just the awards gods smiling down on us.
AwardsLine: What happens when the awards gods don’t smile down?
Mischer: You find people who get to the microphone and forget to stop talking, and you need to play them off the stage. A big part of my job as producer is worrying about all of the things that can go wrong–like we’ll have a 6.2 earthquake the morning of the show, or the lights will fall on someone. Then I remember that even if something awful happens, it may make for something truly memorable. And you roll with it.