Editors’ Note: Live events were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with sweeping cancellations of festivals, sports and awards shows. Don Mischer is one of the doyens of the live-event business. During his long career, he has produced/directed dozens of high-profile special event-telecasts from the Oscars and Primetime Emmys to Olympics opening ceremonies, the Obama Inauguration, and Super Bowl halftime shows, winning 15 Emmys, 10 DGA Awards and a Peabody Award among many honors. In a column for Deadline, Mischer speaks about the crucial role live audiences have played in creating some of the most memorable moments in TV special history, and how profoundly the audience is missed in the COVID-19 era of virtual events. He also lays out his vision for how live events would look for the foreseeable future (no more seat fillers!) as he is prepping for the 2020 The Breakthrough Prize, still on track for November, and is hoping to steer the 2020 Primetime Emmy Awards through the pandemic.
I feel I’ve been fortunate to have made a living doing something I truly love: producing and directing large live events. From the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games and Super Bowl halftime shows to celebrations of national events, celebrity specials and theatrical performances, my life’s work has been bringing moments of shared experiences into homes around the world.
I know that for me, it’s about reaching people emotionally — creating entertainment that has meaning beyond song, dance and spectacle. But there is one key ingredient needed to pull this off: A live audience.
I can’t imagine Prince’s performance of “Purple Rain” at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show without the 90,000 drenched fans passionately singing along with him in the pouring rain. It was truly a goose-bump moment of togetherness, whether you were on the field, in the stands, in the truck directing it, or watching on a screen somewhere else the world.
Since COVID-19 hit us, many innovative attempts have been made to bring people together in spirit, if not in body. Amazing creations from people’s homes are readily available to us in our isolation. One of my favorites is New York Philharmonic musicians performing Ravel’s “Bolero” from their kitchens, living rooms and front porches. It was wonderful.
But for me, there can never be a substitute for a real, live audience. Dr. Chris Merrit, a British clinical psychologist who specializes in crowd behavior, recently said, “When we identify with a group, and feel part of a shared experience, the psychological benefits of being in a crowd are enormous. A huge number of studies show improved mood, reduced loneliness, greater self-esteem, and feelings of belonging when we are in a crowd.”
There is a sort of dialogue between a performer and the audience. The performer tells a joke, sings a song, or scores a touchdown and the crowd responds. It’s a give and take, a call and response. It can be a laugh, a cheer, a standing ovation, or even silence.
When the tattered World Trade Center flag was carried into Olympic Stadium by New York police officers and firemen during the Opening Ceremonies of the Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games, 80,000 people stood in breathless silence. You could hear a pin drop. It was one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever experienced. Tens of thousands of total strangers came together in a profound and powerful way. Theirs was the loudest silence I had ever heard.
Sadly, COVID-19 has taken these kinds of shared emotional experiences from us. And personally, it has made me realize how precious such moments are, and how easily they can be taken for granted. As Americans, we have a history of facing great challenges together. Be it depressions, wars, or national tragedies, we’ve always connected on a face-to-face level. In times of struggle we cling to a most universal truth: That we are not alone.
On September 11, 2001, we shared our grief, our tears and our anger in the presence of others – comforted that our mourning felt ubiquitous. Everyone was hurting then. And so we shored each other up. Today we connect on Zoom, Instagram or Facebook, but we are still alone. This is when I feel the greatest sense of loss.
Having produced and directed live events my whole life, I know first hand how audiences, fans and crowds can create an energy that flows like an electric current. Is there any sound more wonderful than thousands of strangers bursting into laughter? Or singing their hearts out on a tune they can barely carry? Or screaming with delight as their favorite ballplayer hits a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth?
This pandemic is wreaking havoc on our families, jobs and economy, but also on our collective spirit. The last two months have helped me realize that the most important times to come together, are in times of hardship.
All pandemics end. It may come in waves, and hundreds of thousands may be lost. But eventually there will be a vaccine. This storm won’t last forever. In the meantime, social distancing will rule. Possibly for years. So we’ve all begun imagining the realities of live entertainment in a COVID-sensitive world.
At live venues there will be trained COVID security teams that will monitor all floor activity. Entrances, exits and audience flow will become highly choreographed. Aisles will all be one way, and all possible routes of entrance, movement, and exit will be pre-determined. Restrooms will be a no-touch experience – no door handles or toilet levers.
To produce real, live, televised audience events, protocols will also have to change. At award shows like the Oscars or Emmys, temperatures will be checked and masks likely be required as a prerequisite to entering. The number of seats could be reduced by as much as 75 percent. Entrances, exits and audience flow will become highly choreographed and monitored by thoroughly trained COVID Safety Teams, not your usual volunteer ushers. Seat fillers will become a thing of the past.
Shows might have be routined with face-to-face interaction at a minimum or eliminated altogether. Instead of a presenter handling an Emmy to a winner, the Emmy might just magically rise out of the floor on its own moving pedestal.
Those of us in the entertainment industry have to work our way through this. Let’s find ways to help each other feel less alone, to raise our spirits, and bring live audiences back into our entertainment….safely. Sharing laughter, music, thrills, victory, defeat, joy and despair are all part of the journey of life.
One thing is for sure, when things do improve, when musicians and comedians can fill halls with song and laughter, when sports stadiums can allow lifelong fans to return in support of their teams, when friends can meet each other and embrace once again, it will feel sweeter than it has ever felt. There is nothing stronger than the connection between people. I look forward to the day when we can celebrate that experience once more.
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