When producing live-broadcast events like the Super Bowl, the Grammys, the Oscars or the Olympics, it's not a question of if a setback will happen, but more a question of when. Complex, live events come with a high risk for technical malfunctions and unplanned "disasters." However, with proper preparation, a production can appear to run seamlessly. In fact, that is the trick in live events: to find a way of delivering the broadcast with as minimal an impact as possible. If you don't see it... maybe it didn't happen.
In the world of production there are always things beyond our control, but the key is to prepare for challenges that are surmountable and provide the fastest response possible. Big mistakes are not limited to international stadium spectacles; they can happen at small-scale corporate events, too. With a proper contingency plan in place, production teams are one step closer to avoiding mishap.
At the beginning of every production, we perform a comprehensive risk assessment to plan for every foreseeable issue that could affect our clients. We then devise an appropriate solution. In the case of the Super Bowl, this might have included equipping the stadium with separate energy supplies and generators. For this weekend's Academy Awards we would expect the same. By bringing in our own power, we prevent power outages and other electric mishaps that could occur if out of our direct control.
During production, our team spends extensive time on contingency planning, working through every scenario, system-by-system, to create plans for any situation. We rehearse each of these plans so that everyone involved knows his or her individual role. In our practice, this planning provides us more management capacity so that we can deal with problems promptly and efficiently.
If executed properly, behind-the-scenes stresses will not be visible to viewers. With a team of experts working together, well-developed strategies can be put into effect seamlessly without dramatically altering the live-broadcast. Teams should be led by industry experts with a proven track record of delivering successful events under pressure.
Sometimes our planning takes shape in small form, like formal stage managers set to escort winners to and from the stage to prevent embarrassing falls. Or large-scale, like complex mechanisms and technical features to control and maintain the Olympic Flame.
The cauldron, for example, holding the Olympic Flame is fed by two gas supplies. The control systems are run from two directions to make sure that an interruption has a very low likelihood of taking the icon down. We have even designed specific systems into cauldrons to allow the gas to pass through the heat of the flame before it is actually ignited. The gas is above its ignition temperature once it interacts with the air. If the cauldron ever goes out due to a massive gust of wind, the heated gas instantaneously relights the flame, and, as a result, the viewer will never see a lapse.
One of the best known contingency plans at awards ceremonies, like the Grammys or Academy Awards are seat fillers. With the video director rapidly switching from one camera angle to another, the producers want to ensure that the room looks full. At awards shows, a seat filler will take the seat of a celebrity if they need to leave their seat, allowing for large, sweeping shots of an always-full audience, without any empty seats.
Each plan should also be tested with a variety of scenarios including changes in the weather, technology malfunctions and breaching scenarios. The entire team needs to be prepared to recognize trigger points for each plan and know their specific responsibilities in the case of an emergency.
As this year's Super Bowl demonstrated, technical challenges will happen and that's what makes live television so exciting. The success of an event is not contingent on the mishap in question, but in the preparedness and reaction time to implement a secondary plan-of-action.