This week the Juno Awards won a 2017 Canadian Screen Award for best music program for last year’s spectacular TV show. It was well-earned recognition for a show that takes a year to conceive with hundreds, if not thousands, of moving parts, potentially career changing awards to handout, countless twists and turns, numerous creative, financial and physical hurdles to jump over, all to produce a two-hour seamless (“is this the right envelope?”) live broadcast.
I have been involved with the show for many years, even going back to the late 80’s when I worked for MuchMusic and hosted what was then the pre-show for the non-broadcast awards. My involvement with the show has increased over the last seven years when I was asked to produce and write the tribute tapes for the artists presented with the Hall of Fame, Humanitarian, and Walt Grealis industry awards. I am more than honoured to produce short vignettes about Canada’s greatest musicians and successful captains of the music business. My involvement with the show expanded a couple of years ago when I was asked to write the nominee segments, the short introductions for such awards as “single of the year”.
Since 1991 the show has “gone on the road”, pulling up its Toronto stakes, and taking the musical excitement from one end of the country to the other. Even though it puts extra pressure on the production side of things (trying to secure everything from hotel rooms to hiring local crews) the payoff is enormous. For example, when the Junos went to St. John’s in 2010 and Regina in 2013 the response by the hometown crowd was as if the Stanley Cup champions had come to town.
My involvement means I fly in a couple of days before the big show. My tribute tapes are completed and mixed the week before (fingers crossed there are no last-minute blips), and by the time I get to the venue it’s the script writing element and sometimes last-minute voice overs that need my attention. Meanwhile, I look on in amazement at the sheer size of the event, the coordination in the numerous departments, the hundreds of individuals all focused on their particular areas.
The stage is being built, the cameras are being positioned, the venue is being dressed, the transportation captain coordinates pick-ups, the artists are being accommodated, rehearsals are being arranged, and the host(s) is being briefed. And that’s just the front-end stuff. Trucks delivering and picking up gear have to be timed perfectly so they all don’t arrive at once, meals for the hundreds of workers have to be prepared and arranged, make-up and hair needs to be established, wranglers have to be appointed to shadow the talent to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right time. In the production office it’s a mad house of activity with production personnel and assistants all making sure the show goes on. All of this is coordinated under the grand vision of the TV director and executive producers. The show has to be timed to the second. It’s a live broadcast. Anything can happen. It’s wonderfully crazy, but logistically mind-boggling. It’s a jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of parts that must all fit together smoothly in front of a nation watching in their living room, or on-line.
One of my extra duties in the last couple of years is helping the individual who warms up the crowd just before the show begins and while it is in commercial break. For the last two years it has been the affable and talented T.Rex from MuchMusic. With my master-script in hand I am at the side of the stage and I arm him with such information as what awards and performances are coming up next. He then addresses the ten thousand strong live audience and keeps the excitement going while set changes occur on stage, and ads are running on the network.
Last year, at Calgary’s Saddledome, a small, but important element occurred which highlighted what can happen at any given time on a show that is unfolding as the minutes tick by. And it just concerned my small world. The challenges for some of the more important areas can be even more crucial. Back to my scenario: three-quarters of the way through the broadcast, with the show unfolding beautifully, I’m at side stage prepping T.Rex. I get a tap on the shoulder from an assistant. I turn around.
“Lindsay (exec-producer Lindsay Cox) needs you,” the concerned young woman said. “We are running over time. She needs you to save thirty seconds on Nickelback’s intro to Burton Cummings.”
“Where is she?” I answer.
“Master control area. Quickly, follow me.”
I close the script bible, tuck it under my arm, leave the backstage area, and follow the assistant. T. Rex sees me depart.
“Hey, where you going?” he says. ‘I’m up in a minute.”
“Minor crisis. You ok with the next segment?”
He is and I continue my fast paced exit towards the production nerve center, an area cordoned off by just black curtains tucked away to one side of the main venue walkway. I enter. It’s like Cape Canaveral, and as intense as a moon landing. There are about eight different monitors displaying the various camera angles and the main TV feed showing what the public is seeing. Numerous personnel wear head phones connected to Dave Russell, the director in the live feed truck; seated behind them at the back of the cramped space are a handful of network executives, off to one side are two women controlling the teleprompter for any last second script changes (such as: “he just won breakthrough artist of the year…here now to present…”). In the middle of all this action is Lindsay Cox keeping the show on time and track.
She sees me enter, interrupts who she is talking to on the headset, which she then pulls off her head.
“We need to shave seconds off the Nickelback intro,” she states emphatically. “They are due up after this commercial break.”
“OK,” I answer and open the master script to the Burton Cummings intro. “We eliminate this section here…and move Ryan’s part here…”
“Do it…make the changes in teleprompter…” I move over to the women at the teleprompter who have been following the exchange. They are just about to make the changes. “No,” Lindsay says, “…make sure Nickelback are ok with the shift.”
“Where are they now?” I ask.
The assistant checks her rundown, checks the time, speaks into the walkie-talkie. “The wrangler has them. They are on their way to entrance B.”
“Where’s that?” I say.
“Quick follow me,” she says. “It’s on the other side of main stage.”
We run out of the control area. Every second counts. T. Rex is on stage hyping the crowd. I can hear them cheering. The clock is ticking. Nickelback are due up in two minutes to honour and introduce the Burton Cummings tribute that I have produced.
Behind the main stage is the unseen stage that has all the guitars, drums, monitors, etc all prepared and ready to go. Only artists, roadies, and stage personnel are allowed to cross it. Everyone else must go around. It’s a bottle neck that takes an extra amount of seconds to negotiate. We need those extra seconds. The assistant knows what I am thinking.
“Under here,” she says, and we scramble underneath the risers and emerge on the other side in mere moments.
Coming down the tunnel are the four members of Nickelback looking calm and enjoying themselves. They are accompanied by their publicist. She recognizes me and knows I have an immediate task to perform.
“What’s up?” she says as the Nickelback guys gather round to listen. I tell them we are running over time and need to shave seconds. I open the master script and explain what I have in mind.
“No problem,” says band leader Chad. Bless ‘em, I think to myself. “But let Ryan read over what he has to say.” I show the script to Ryan. He reads it no problem. I tell him it will be in the teleprompter.
Just then the wrangler gets a call on his walkie-talkie and tells Nickelback: “They need you at the side of the stage. You are up in one minute.”
I run back, script in hand, under the back stage risers, dodging the various bodies all doing their tasks, through the black curtains of the control centre, straight towards the teleprompter, instruct the changes, re-read the changes to verify they are correct, and then turn to Lindsay.
“Done,” and I leave Lindsay to her orchestration of the show.
I return to side stage to see T.Rex finish his part, and hear the booming voice of the Junos, Mark Strong, announce to the live and TV audience “Welcome back to the 2016 Juno awards, please welcome to the stage Nickelback…” The crowd gives them an enthusiastic welcome. I watch intently to make sure those changes go off without a hitch. Nickelback deliver the introduction to the tribute tape beautifully without any hiccups. The tape plays and I look on with a certain amount of pride. After it’s finished playing Chad announces “Ladies and gentleman…Burton Cummings!” Burton strolls on stage. The crowd goes wild. They give him a two-minute standing ovation! The response is incredible.
The time we saved was eclipsed by something that you cannot plan for – the human and unpredictable element. But it was the highlight of the show and worth every second. I’m not sure how Lindsay made up the rest of the time. But the show continued on time and on track. And when it was all over we all knew that it was a good one. There is very little to equal pulling off a successful live show. After all that preparation and stress the production personnel, no matter how big or small, breathe a sigh of relief and take pride in a show worthy of the ever-growing Canadian music scene. The show deserved to win the Canadian Screen Award. To all the artists and production personnel who help pull off a grand live event…cheers! Proud to be part of it.