Primetime Emmy's Man with a Plan

It's only days before the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards, and Don Mischer, who is producing the live telecast for the tenth time since 1993, is focused. “Between now and the Emmys, I'm not really physically any place other than living the night of Sept. 20,” he says with a laugh. “Isn't that sick?”

That's one word for it. Lighting designer Bob Dickinson, a longtime collaborator, prefers “completely immersive.” Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Chairman and CEO John Shaffner likens Mischer's preternatural “alertness” to that of an astronaut.

And indeed that capacity for losing himself in a project is one reason why Mischer has set the standard for producing live events and variety programs—and won 13 Primetime Emmys—over his 40-plus years in television.

Mischer's lauded focus is much needed this year. Last year's Emmy broadcast, which he didn't produce, drew an historic low of 12.3 million viewers. While some blamed the widely panned stunt of having the nominees for best reality host serve as the MCs, it didn't help that many of the winners were basic-cable programs with basic-cable-sized audiences.

Mischer's aim is to familiarize viewers with this year's nominees while attempting to, as he puts it, “look at the wider picture of television over the past year, not just the nominated content.” That, he says, was the impetus behind the scuttled plan to time-shift eight awards in order to carve out more program time to run clips.

“We tried to make moves which would give us more program time to put more entertainment into the show, and our industry did not support it,” Mischer says. “That's fine. I really believe we can do a great show.”

Front and center, Mischer has great confidence in this year's host, Neil Patrick Harris, whom he described as a “major creative contributor” in terms of setting a tone and guiding the program.

Mischer also plans to present the award categories in blocks by genre, enabling the program to highlight the year in reality or comedy, for example, more broadly. (The top drama and comedy series awards will still close the program.) Citing TV academy research that found viewers went online after last year's broadcast to learn more about the winners, he says they are exploring the idea of offering background and anecdotes about nominees through “more conversational” voiceovers, as well as posting Tweets on screen to engage the “viral community.”

For Mischer, it's about forging that kind of emotional connection between an event—whether grand spectacles like Olympic ceremonies and Super Bowl half-time shows or a relatively modest affair like the Kennedy Center Honors—and the viewer at home.

That connection is what brought him into the industry in the first place. It was during a weekend in Nov. 1963 that Mischer, then a sociology student at the University of Texas, awakened to the emotional potential of TV. The day after President Kennedy was assassinated, Mischer was recruited by the university to help shepherd the news producers converging on Austin. Watching the reports they produced in the days following, he was persuaded to set aside plans to pursue a Ph.D. and apply for an internship at the local PBS station.

“I think television really came of age in this country that weekend,” Mischer says. “It was through television that we shared our grief.”

Having played double-neck steel guitar for a country band during college, Mischer gravitated toward music and performance programming. His career flourished in the 1970s and '80s, a golden age of network variety and specials programming when millions tuned in to catch Perry Como's Christmas in Hawaii or watch Michael Jackson moonwalk on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.

Those big-tent audiences may be long gone in a splintered TV universe, but Mischer is intent on regaining some of that lost share with a big-tent program—something Bob Dickinson says Mischer does masterfully.

“One thing about Don is he is not frightened by scale,” he says. “He's always attempting to bring intimacy in [large] projects.”