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July 11, 2016

A Man for All Seasons

If there's a big, live event happening, odds are Don Mischer is producing it.

Melissa Byers
  • Don Mischer
  • Don Mischer

    Don Mischer

What do the Emmys, the Oscars, the Tonys, the Super Bowl halftime Show and the Olympics have in common?

They have all been produced by Don Mischer. Along with producing partners Charlie Haykel and Juliane Hare, Mischer has built an award-winning resume in a medium he loves, winning numerous awards, including 15 Emmys. This year, he once again takes the helm of the 68th Emmy Awards.

We recently spoke with Mischer about his stellar career.

You are a very busy man!

Well, at times we are, and at other times we’re not, but we love doing the Emmys. I gotta tell you, we all grew up with television and it’s been such an important part of our lives, and so to be able to produce the Emmys, which is a night in which you look at the very best in television, it’s a thrill and we love it, and we’re very excited about doing it again.

Well, we’re very excited to have you. So, tell me, what, exactly, do you, as the producer, do? I know there’s an awful lot to it, but can you break it down for me?

I will take a shot at it. A producer basically puts together the elements that make the program. We are generally hired by a network, and the network selects the date; that’s been decided ahead of time. Generally speaking, we air the second or third week in September.

So then, in about April, we begin to do the following: The first job is to lock in a host, and of course the network is helpful with that, as well. Because with the Emmys, the Emmys present 27 awards in a three-hour timeframe. The amount of actual program time you’ve got is about two hours and seven minutes.

So, in two hours and seven minutes, I’m leaving out the time for the commercials. With 27 awards, a host becomes a real critical part of this equation. So, the first problem you face as a producer is to find a host.

You look for somebody who is smart, quick on their feet, funny, can roll with the punches, and can improvise as you go through the evening. That’s the very first thing you do. And, of course, we are really thrilled to have Jimmy Kimmel – we’ve done one other one with Jimmy – and he’s going to be a great host. So, that’s the first thing.

You then begin to put a staff together. And you have to put together music directors, writers, production designers who design your set, a director. You have to put together the lighting team. And there’s just many, many different operations, so you begin to put that together. You hire people that you want on your team.

You then start to make a schedule, and you plan events for the Emmys. And you might have ideas about specific things you want to do based on things that have happened during the season. You begin to put a rundown together. The rundown is simply deciding in what order would you like to do the awards, how do you want to do it.

You begin to think about who might be good to present certain awards, you think about other comedic elements you may put into the show.

You begin to think about the In Memoriam segment and those folks who you lost during the year, and how you might pay them respect and mention them in the proper tone as you go through it.

You can’t really lock any of this stuff in until the nominations are announced. It’s kind of as if you’re running a 100-meter dash and you’re in the blocks getting ready to go. When the nominations come out, it’s like the gunfire, and you’re ready to race.

I’m sitting here looking at a show right now. It’s up on a board on which we’re looking at how we might slit things up, but until we get the actual nominations, we’re not going to really know that we’re on the right track yet.

Part of the goal with the Emmys is to try, on a night on which you are honoring people who have been given Emmys by their peers, you also want to acknowledge other good television during the year, so you try to figure out how you can do that.

Then, once the nominations are announced, you begin to decide which categories should we do film packages for. Which categories would make interesting nomination packages.

Obviously actors and actresses and dramas or comedies or long form or miniseries and movies, there’s some wonderful, wonderful television in those genres, and you can make terrific packages out of that, which makes the show more entertaining, and it helps viewers at home appreciate a little bit more the quality of work that has been done in television this year.

I think it’s virtually impossible for people at home, and even critics, to see everything all the time. There is simply so much product. So part of what we do in the Emmys is, if there’s a particular show that receives 8, 9, 10 nominations, we might want to try to include that program in some of these nomination film packages.

Maybe they don’t watch Homeland, or maybe they don’t watch Game of Thrones, or maybe they don’t watch Gray’s Anatomy, but they can still get a sense of these shows and see why they are nominated by looking at these film packages. That’s part of what makes the show interesting.

Sprinkled in between is the host. The host has got to drive the pace of the evening and keep things moving quickly. There’s a lot of awards to give in a very short period of time. I think probably the Emmys give out more awards in that time frame than any other awards show on television.

So the producer, you end up supervising the writing, hiring the people to put the film packages together, the writers begin to write the script, that starts to come through the producer’s team and ends up in the actual form of a script. We have a booking team which is going out and selecting presenters that seem to be appropriate for each of these categories.

The Emmys rotate on what is called a wheel. It’s the four principal commercial networks CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox, and they rotate annually. This year it’s on ABC. Next year I believe it will be on CBS. So, you go around the wheel, and you’re booking the show, and you try to make sure that you represent all genres and all networks, including Netflix or Amazon or FX or Comedy Central or  HBO or whatever.

You try to represent people fairly. That’s one of the toughest things. With the Emmys you have a lot of people who would like to participate. Unfortunately, it is more than what we can actually use at times. So, we have to make decisions on what makes the most sense, and we have to be fair and equitable to people in terms of the booking and how the booking is distributed. So, that’s another job the producer’s got.

In the end, it comes down to scheduling, rehearsing, and all that, which is the last step, where the director generally kind of takes over. But it’s still your responsibility overall.

So it’s what we do for a living, and if we like it a lot; it’s fun. We get to meet a lot of great people who work in television, and who are very talented, and we’re proud to be involved.

It’s exciting, and it’s fun, and, again, on Emmy night, you get to look at the best television of the year. And the best television of the year is damned good television. It is impressive, high quality, wonderfully executed work. And that’s what’s fun about doing the Emmys.

Did you always want to do television? How does one become a producer?

I always wanted to work in television. I grew up in Texas, in San Antonio, and when I was in junior high school I played in a country band, and I played steel guitar, and we got to go every once in a while into the local television station and play on a Saturday morning or something.

Every time I walked into the studio, my heart started beating fast, and I just loved it. Then later when I was in college, at the University of Texas, I enjoyed spending more around the television trucks and television cameras, than actually watching the game because it was exciting for me. They were carrying this game live and it was being seen all across the United States.

So I kind of got bitten by the television bug. So that was always my objective, and at one point I’d hoped that I could become a television camera operator, so that at some point, a picture from a camera that I was operating might be seen all across the United States. I thought that would really be cool.

I also like to say that those of us who work in live television and live event television, it is a high stress job. We’ve been called stress junkies. When you count down to going on the air, you tried your best to plan something that will work, but you never really know. It’s a thrill, you get a thrill out of that.

And the only way to survive that kind of stuff, month after month, is to have a passion for it. I don’t think anyone would work in the area of television that we work in and just call it a job. We get passionate about it, probably illogically passionate. But, anyway, that’s what happens.

Well, I don’t think passion is supposed to be logical anyway. You’ve done several different kinds of events, half-time shows, the Emmys, the Oscars. What are the similarities and differences between the different kinds of things? I would think a half-time show would be far different from when you’re doing the Emmys.

It is. When you’re doing the Emmys, like at the Microsoft Theater, we have control of that. We have control of the theater, we make our own schedule, we plan everything out way ahead of time, it’s all planned.

When you do the halftime show, you’re not the main event of the day. There’s a football game that’s very, very important. For instance, rehearsal for a Super Bowl halftime show, we never had more than one rehearsal on the field. And generally, it was Thursday night, and then you were unable to rehearse on Friday or Saturday, and the game is on Sunday.

You have to have a set that can be put together by volunteers in about six minutes and fifty seconds, so you can’t just design anything you want. You’ve got to be careful about that. You have to help the artist understand that they’re not in control, and they’re going to have work within time limits, and other limits that are part of a big wheel, a cog in the wheel that makes up Super Bowl Sunday, and so, it’s different.

The Olympics, for example, we’ve done the opening and closing ceremonies of both the summer and winter Olympic Games, and you spend three years planning it. So that’s a lot different.

There is similarity between the Oscars and the Tonys we’ve done, and the Emmys which we’ve done, but you try to approach each one of those things and try to make them in one way or another unique to that particular year. Make them relevant. In the end, it’s a lot of the same kind of pressures and tension and all that.

I would love for you to mention my two partners who are co-executive producers. One is Charlie Haykel and also Juliane Hare. We are a team, they are my partners and we work hand in hand on this.

It works well, because we divide things up and we plan ahead a lot. We have found that with live television, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and sometimes these programs like the Emmys will take their own path and go in their own direction.

An example of that is acceptance speeches. When you do the Oscars, you don’t have a problem with the length of the program because ABC lets you go long. When you’re doing the Emmys,  or the Grammys or some of the other shows, you do have to time the show while you’re on the air live.

In the case of the Emmys, you’re sitting there for 27 awards.

As a producer, you write letters to all the nominees in the middle of August. You congratulate them on being nominated, and you ask them to do things like move to the stage quickly, and you ask them to not pull out pieces of paper with long lists of names on them, but would they please just speak from the heart about what they feel, about what this means to them, did they ever dream that they would be here receiving this kind of accolade from their peers.

You do that and you tell them to keep it to about 40-45 seconds. But, of course, when you win… As a producer, you always feel bad telling people, “Keep your remarks short.”

For many people this could be one of the most important moments in their lives. They’ve worked hard, years and years and years, they’ve done something really well, they’ve now been given the ultimate recognition. And then you ask them to keep their remarks to 45 seconds. It’s really, really hard.

But, when the network says to you, you’ve got to get off the air on time, you’ve got to get off the air on time. That leads you to this thing that you really hate to do, which is playing people off, playing music if they start to talk too long.

In the letters that we send out to all the nominees, we  talk honestly about it. It’s disrespectful, it’s disrespectful to them, it’s disrespectful to those of us who are producing and directing the show, and to the television business, so please try to cooperate. And sometimes, it really works.

One year we did them with Neil Patrick Harris as host, and one year we did them with Jimmy Fallon as host, this was like five or six years ago, I think, in both of those shows, we never once had to play music to get anyone to keep their remarks short. You feel really good as a producer when that happens, because you never like playing that music, and doing that to people.

So, that’s one thing that you work on. When you’re on the air live, another thing that you do, is that you have different lengths of packages for things that help you keep the times adjusted. So, at the producer’s table, Charlie, Juliane and I are working on rundowns. Every time we go to a commercial, there’s a man sitting next to us who is back-timing the show with a computer.

So, every time we go to a commercial, he’ll tell us to the second where we are. He’ll say to us, “you are six minutes and 31 seconds long right now.”  So, now we’re in a commercial break, and we now look ahead , what’s after this commercial break. We’re six minutes and 31 seconds long, can we cut something, what can we cut?

So, one of our jobs is to produce segments of different lengths when you get near the end of the show. So, the last category that we normally give, the last genre, is dramatic program, supporting actor, lead actor, actress in a drama. So, we will have, let’s just take lead actress in a drama. That’s generally a wonderful category with top people nominated and great performances.

We will make a film package for when we read their names. We’ll have a long version, we’ll have an ideal version, and then we’ll have a very short package. In the commercial break before that, in this instance in commercial number 11, you now know exactly where you are. You’ve got to make a decision in that commercial.

We’re running short, so we’re going to use the long package. I wish that happened, but it never seems to happen. Generally, we’re running long, we’ve got to go with the short package.

Sometimes we have wonderful packages that really have fantastic work, and we have to dump the package altogether in the commercial and go to what we call a live read, in which the presenter simply reads the names. Name one, name two, name three, name four, name five, and opens the envelope. So, those are ways we control the length as we go through it.

Well, that answers one of my other questions, which is what are you doing throughout the show.

Generally, it’s about the timing. We work with the host, and the host usually has his or her writing team with them, and we keep communicating with them during the evening and during the commercial breaks.

Did something happen in the act before that needs to be commented on? Our primary job is to talk to people who are about to walk out there to present, try to make them relaxed, tell them just to do it naturally, just relax and go with it, or we’re working on timing and how to control the timing.

Last year, for example, the last award, Tracy Morgan gave that award. We had decided ahead of time in talking with Tracy, this was his first time back in a year after the accident. We decided – and he was a part of this – he didn’t want to be seen. He wanted it to be a surprise. So, we said, OK, you should come at the last minute.

So, he did not sit in the audience, he did not have his family in the audience, he did not do the red carpet. We arranged a car and we arranged a secret entrance, not the normal entrance where the press is. And we brought him in, literally 10 minutes before he walked out on the stage.

So, one of our jobs at that point was, is he in the car, do we have contact with the car, OK, we have radio contact. Where is the car? The car is at Olympic and Western. Then we’re trying to figure out, how’s the traffic, is he going to make it here in time? Those are the things that add to the stress and make the job fun. So, that’s what you do when you’re on the air live.

Wow. That’s keeping track of a lot. One last question. You’ve won a few awards. What does that mean to you?

It means a lot. I know that just sounds like what everybody says, but the truth is, if you get an Emmy, that Emmy is given to you by the people who compete with you, the people who go in and try to get the same jobs that you do. And you get them sometimes and they get them sometimes, but the fact that they put that competitive spirit aside to say that we felt that your work was outstanding, you really can’t beat that.

When you first come to town, you just say to yourself, I’d be so happy if I could just get an Emmy nomination. God, that would make me feel so wonderful. And eventually, if you work hard, you’ll maybe get an Emmy nomination at some point. You may be here four or five years first. But when you get the nomination, you really are overjoyed.

I mean, being nominated is very exciting when you get that call and you know that your name has been listed. Then to finally win, that’s a night you will never forget. Your kids won’t forget it and you’ll tell your grandkids about it.

All of us in this business, we work hard. We deal with insecurity at times, because of our business, and will there be work there, and will I do the job well, will people want to hire me back and all that. It’s a lot of work and a lot of worry, a lot of stress, but there’s also an unbelievable thrill in doing it and when you do win an Emmy, you feel like you’ve kind of, in some sense of the word, crossed a finish line.

You can’t take that one back. You’ll run the race again, and if you’re lucky, you may win again, but it means a lot. And I think that’s one thing that makes the Emmys special to the people that are sitting there.

It’s hard to go there and sit there. You’re sitting in a 6,000 seat auditorium and 80-85 percent of you are walking out not having won. And it’s tough. But we all know that, and that’s why winning one means so much when you do.

It’s just part of what we do, those of us who love this business.

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