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Don Mischer’s Olympian Emmy Efforts

Sep 27, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Three days after Don Mischer executive produced the Emmy Awards for the ninth time, he wasn’t ready to think about doing it a 10th time-even if they asked.

“This is the wrong time to ask me that question,” Mr. Mischer said. “I get so wiped out by this show. We do a lot of big events, from the Olympics ceremonies in Salt Lake to the Hong Kong handover. … But for some reason-because we grew up in television, we love television, our livelihood is television, so many of our friends are sitting there in that audience-for some reason there is more pressure on you doing that show than all the other shows combined. And it’s a high-pressure thing. It’s often been characterized as a no-win situation because there’s no way you can really come out of the box and please everybody and score all the time. It’s just not in the cards. I just feel really mentally drained at this point.”

Part of his fatigue has to do with producing a far better show than last year but seeing the TV audience shrink to the lowest level in 14 years. “The ratings were really quite bad,” Mr. Mischer said. Why? “First of all, nobody really knows,” he answered. “I think the show was not promoted enough. I think it was promoted on ABC, but ABC viewership is low compared to other networks.”

After consulting with ABC, Mr. Mischer softened his stance. He said the network had met all of its contractual obligations in terms of marketing efforts and expenditures.

“Could we have done a better job? Maybe,” said Mike Benson, senior VP, marketing, for ABC. “But I really don’t believe we shorted this program at all. We looked at this as a strategic part of launching our fall season so we wanted the biggest number [of viewers] we could get.”

Mr. Benson said ABC bought ads on radio and in print, and used their limited supply of ads on sister networks ESPN and ABC Familyl. They actually did more marketing than four years ago, the last time ABC had the Emmys, when the show pulled high ratings.

“I think it shows it’s getting tougher and tougher for any network to open a show,” Mr. Benson said. “You really need to make whatever you do a big event, whether you are in first or fourth place.”

Another built-in problem, Mr. Mischer believes, is that despite the high quality of a miniseries like “Angels in America,” HBO programming isn’t as widely seen as shows on broadcast. “I know that the Oscars, when they have a popular film like `The Titanic,’ do much better than if they have more esoteric films that are in competition,” Mr. Mischer said. “It’s conceivable that a lack of familiarity with HBO material could have an effect.”

The esoteric effect could also apply to “Arrested Development” on Fox, which dominated comedy categories. It is admired by critics but so far has drawn relatively small audiences.

What he feels did succeed was Garry Shandling’s return as single host in the wake of bad reviews last year for the multiple non-hosts. Mr. Mischer credits Mr. Shandling’s success to hard work in advance, including taking trips to comedy clubs at least an hour by car outside L.A., far from the Hollywood crowd, to test out fresh comedic material. “Garry’s got the ability to be fun and irreverent about things like television and the past season,” said Mr. Mischer, “but underneath it all he really loves this medium and very much respects the Emmys.”

The other success, and the greatest risk, said Mr. Mischer, was the use of two noncelebrities to present the reality award. “A lot of people we were dealing with were afraid we were going to make fun of them,” Mr. Mischer recalled.

The surprise presenters, who didn’t know each other, were chosen from among applicants to ABC’s “Extreme Makeover.” They flew on Friday to L.A. thinking they would audition for a reality show on Monday. They were told they would be toured around over the weekend. “We got them into the car [on Sunday] and said we are going for a drive along the beach,” Mr. Mischer said. “Then we blindfolded them. They were driven to the east parking lot behind the Shrine. By this time they were also wearing earphones playing music.”

There was no way to know how these civilians would react when the masks came off in front of a worldwide audience. “We were just kind of rolling the dice on this one,” Mr. Mischer said. “A lot of people said to us, `Good reality is never live,’ because reality [shows] benefit from editing and setting things up with voice-over narration. It’s really risky to try and do anything like this live..”

The most severe criticism has been for the use of music to drown out long-winded winners. “The policy was 40 seconds for everybody,” said Mr. Mischer, but he admitted it was applied irregularly.

“There were a couple of instances that were mistakes,” he explained. “When Jon Stewart got up there, he got a `please wrap up’ like 15 seconds after he started. I apologized to Jon afterward. Other times, like at the end of the show, we had no intention of cutting off James Gandolfini. We just didn’t know it was coming. [“Sopranos” exec producer] David Chase had finished and [Emmys] director Lou Horvitz cued the music, cued Garry to start the goodnight, and then James came to the microphone. And so it was awkward. But had we known he was coming, we wouldn’t have cut it off. It’s just that the ship had sailed.”

How come Meryl Streep got the music, but Al Pacino didn’t? Mr. Mischer wasn’t sure. He said it might have been that the people who cue the music were busy cutting the show during his acceptance. They were running late. And ABC was insisting the show end on time. “I can say there is no policy about who gets more time or who doesn’t get time,” he said.

Despite dismal Nielsens, Mr. Mischer is proud of the show: “It moved well. It was very entertaining, very funny. Garry did a good job. Overall, we did a good job. I was just very sorry we had the kind of time problems we had that kept us from letting people speak longer.”