Alumnus Rob Paine ’92 knows the stresses of live television. He’s worked on the Oscars telecast for more than 20 years and as a supervising producer since 2016. His work on that telecast earned him another Emmy nomination this year. He has more than 200 television events to his name, including 12 Super Bowl halftime shows and the Kennedy Center Honors. On October 15, Paine is co-executive producing a special on HBO Max that will reunite the cast of The West Wing to benefit When We All Vote, Michelle Obama’s nonpartisan voter drive. We spoke with Paine about what it’s like producing live shows, how the coronavirus has affected his line of work, and what advice he has for students hoping to go into live production.
Answers have been edited for length and flow.
Not only were you nominated this year for an Emmy, but you also worked on the show as a co–executive producer. How challenging was it to produce a virtual Emmys show?
The biggest challenges are all COVID-related. The first part of that is keeping everybody safe and following all union, county, and state COVID-related guidelines. We had about 250 people on set. All those people had to be tested several times. We moved from the Microsoft Theater to the Staples Center for safety reasons. Even if we didn’t have an audience, we had to spread everybody out because of COVID. We also had a lot of technicalities we needed to deal with. We had an hour-long tech call probably every single day of the week for a solid two to three months.
How did you think the show turned out?
I think it turned out great. We were dealing with the tech. We weren’t entirely sure it was going to work. It was very complicated. Three vendors assisted with camera kits. We had technicians who were helping people with technical issues. We had 120 live feeds going. We had a plan seven days prior to the show. We became very confident with the tech. What concerned us the most were the people on the other end. Were the nominees going to participate? Were they going to check in on time? We had every feed checked in a half hour before the show. I’ve spent half my life doing live shows, but it was really odd not having an audience in the theater. At the end of the day, it was a really good show.
Did you always want to work in live TV?
For a long time, I knew what I wanted to do. I remember I used to love watching the Oscars and the Olympics growing up. When I was at Emerson, I originally wanted to do news and sports because I always loved live TV. At Emerson, I worked in concert production. I worked for a local concert producer in New England. I just really like music; I like live stuff. The fact that so many people can experience something at the same time…there are very few mediums in the world where you can have millions of people experience the same thing, whether it’s happy or sad, and that’s exciting. I love working in TV. Emerson combined all of that for me. I realized there was a whole world of entertainment live TV in LA. I started working for Dick Clark as a production assistant after graduating and I’ve done it pretty much ever since.
You once referred to yourself as a “fireman” for the night of the Oscars ceremony. Can you explain why?
My job is in charge of the physical production of the show. I create the budget and oversee it. I oversee the schedule, facilities, stagecraft, and more. It’s really about massive planning. The goal is that once you get to the night of the show, all those plans fall into place, or if not, you’re able to change plans. My job is to put everything in place. Once the show begins, you really put out fires at that point. You hand it off to the director and teams and live producers and watch what happens.
What is one thing people might be surprised to learn about the Oscars telecast?
How quickly it happens. Oftentimes, in some manner of speaking, I’m doing something on the show throughout the year. By the time the Academy hires producers, it really is about four to five months before show dates, which is a really short period of time to put something like that on.
You’re working on the next Oscars telecast. What lessons will you take from the Emmys show if you have to go virtual for the Oscars?
Having been through that once, I definitely learned a lot. I know it works. We can probably take it further after having lived through what we did on the Emmys. The goal is to have an audience in the theater, but who knows what’s going to happen between now and then? The hardest thing about doing the show is the uncertainty. Live shows are always full of uncertainty, but at least you know the area, you know that people will show up. At some point, you have to pull the trigger whether the show will be in person or not. There are too many logistics that go into a show that size.
How has COVID-19 affected your line of work?
It basically shut down my arm of the business for about six months. There were really no shows or live shows in production, especially up until the summertime. Everybody was afraid to spend anything on live [entertainment]. That’s starting to come back now with the MTV Video Music Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards, and the Emmy Awards. It’s certainly not in the normal way like before, but these shows are in production. You employ more than 200 people doing shows like this. I’ve worked with some people for 20–30 years. You want to see them employed. You don’t want to see them lose their homes or anything else. Compared to lots of other people in the country, I consider myself lucky. These shows are coming back and I’ve been able to work. There are a lot of people who aren’t as lucky.
What advice would you give to students hoping to work in live TV?
When I was at Emerson, it was a different world then. I don’t think we were exposed to all the different jobs in TV and film. There was basically producer, director, and camera operator. There are so many different jobs in the industry now. You can kind of create your own niche. You have to figure out what you love. If you love working in live TV, it’s an exciting place to be. Once all this is over, move to LA and expose yourself to the world here.
Also, it takes a certain personality to work in this line of work. It’s very stressful. You are responsible for other people’s money, safety, the success of people you work for (such as producer and directors). You are responsible to the network. You have to deliver a successful show. It has to be technically flawless and on budget. There are lots of things on your shoulders. You have to be able to manage that without losing your mind. That means being confident in what you can do, remaining calm, surrounding yourself with good people. Most importantly, you can’t panic.