Don Mischer: Riding The Revival Of Live TV
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].