By FRANK SWERTLOW
Producing live television is the last great high-wire act of broadcasting and few live broadcasts are more harrowing than the Emmys, because the entire TV industry is looking on.
That's why NBC hired Don Mischer last year to produce the award's 50th anniversary show, and why Fox has brought him back for the 51st installment on Sept. 12.
"There are only five guys who can do this, and Don is the guy you want," said Mike Darnell, executive vice president for alternative series and specials for Fox Broadcasting. "Nobody usurps him as king. He's the best."
Indeed, Mischer produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, the broadcast of the 1997 Hong Kong transfer back to Chinese rule, and many similar live extravaganzas.
Unlike TV dramas or sitcoms that are filmed or videotaped and then carefully edited, live TV is raw. There are no post-production wizards who can fix a miscue.
And miscues do happen.
During last year's TV Guide awards show, someone tripped over a cable and pulled the electricity from the teleprompters, forcing Mischer to have a crew member walk out on stage and hand a script to the star. To prevent a repeat of that incident, Mischer has arranged backup power for the prompters.
A few years ago when the Emmys were in Pasadena, the air conditioning failed, leaving those in the balcony sweltering. Mischer was able to integrate that bit of discomfort into the show, making it a running joke.
"Sometimes something that is disastrous can turn a show around," Mischer said. "It can make it memorable and contribute to the excitement of the evening."
Despite such spontaneity, producing the Emmys requires months of planning. In fact, Mischer started working on the broadcast as soon as the award nominations were announced last spring.
By June, he had added nearly 40 freelancers to his year-round payroll of seven. When the broadcast rolls next month, there will be more than 150 people on board. They include camera operators, writers, sound and lighting technicians and stage personnel.
Then comes the task of lining up presenters (this year including Ted Danson, Sela Ward and Lisa Kudrow) as well as the naming of a host. For a while, Mischer toyed with having a no-host show, but last week it was announced that Jenna Elfman, who stars in ABC's "Dharma and Greg," and David Hyde Pierce, who stars in NBC's "Frasier," would be headlining the show.
"There are not too many people who can do this," Mischer said. "I feel there is an energy and excitement about her, and David is very witty. They will make a great couple."
He calls his style that of a "benevolent dictator. You can't do it by committee, you can't satisfy a committee. You'll always fail if you try," he says.
But unlike some producers, he doesn't scream, rant and intimidate like a Marine drill instructor.
"I scream inside myself," he says. "I wake up at 4 a.m. and worry about what can go wrong, but that is what your job is all about. Screaming doesn't help. My job is to make people feel good and to motivate them to care."
The days of letting a broadcast go into overtime are long gone. To prevent this, Mischer will sit in the Emmy command center at the Shrine Auditorium and use a computer that keeps tabs on whether the show is running too long or too short.
That means making quick adjustments in the script and video clips from nominated programs. The clip retrospectives are broken into differing lengths the ideal length, along with a shorter and longer version.
Scripts tend to be chopped first. "If Jay Leno has one minute of material and we are running long, we will (skip Leno's bit and) go straight to the clips," Mischer said.
What makes a successful broadcast? Being as upbeat as possible.
"Most of TV is about losers and anti-heroes," said George Schlatter, who has produced the Grammys and the American Comedy Awards. "'ER' is about bleeding. Sitcoms are about dysfunctional families. Don knows that award shows make people feel good. It's one of the few places where you find winners, and you must know how to present winners to the public."
One traditional element that will be missing this year is the splashy musical production number. The reason? Viewers dial out.
"Gil (Cates, producer of last year's Oscars) said he found that viewership drops off during his musical numbers and then people come back later," said Mischer. "It's like a commercial."
What can make the Emmys truly nightmarish is the last-minute foul-ups and having the entire TV industry scrutinizing your work. A satellite feed to the East Coast might fail; a generator outside the Shrine Auditorium might run out of gasoline; an actress in a long gown might stumble over her own dress.
Mischer has a contingency plan for almost everything even an earthquake.
"We would have to assess the situation to see if we would stay on the air," he said. "If there is chaos in the auditorium, we would (switch the broadcast) to New York, assess the situation and make a decision about continuing."
Then there are the nuts. What happens if an intruder wants to infiltrate the broadcast with a weapon and cause havoc while millions of viewers look on? Mischer has a contingency. "There are plain-clothes officers in the house and backstage," he said.
But no matter how many contingencies, something inevitably will go awry.
"The fun is improvising," he said. "No matter how many plans you make, you really are not in control."
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