BY ANN FARMER
Mark Traub likes to laugh. As the lead stage manager for NBC's Today show, he routinely unleashes his distinctive, reedy peal when the anchors spout something humorous. Viewers hear it. (He's even received fan letters.) The anchors relish it.
"Every joke is 50 percent better because of Mark," says veteran weather anchor Al Roker, pausing on his way to mingle with eager audience members gathered outside in Rockefeller Plaza one recent morning. "He provides a valuable service in addition to cueing us."
Funny thing. Six blcks away in the Times Square studio of ABC's Good Morning America, its stage manager, Eddie Luisi, also amplifies the joie de vivre of his morning news and talk show. His high-pitched, wheezy guffaw has likewise become so commonplace in the background audio that viewers routinely ask whom it belongs to.
Coincidence? Not entirely. The three major network morning news shows—which, including CBS' The Early Show, are a 7 a.m. staple of American life—have evolved lock step during the last two decades. They've mimicked one another's street-side studios, and have comparably accelerated the pace of their broadcasts and made them more entertainment driven, except for The Early Show's recent focus on news. Likewise, all three shows have pushed aside the once-sacrosanct fourth wall, enabling viewers to see and hear what's happening behind the scenes, including chuckling by a stage manager.
"Everybody's watching what the other guy is doing," says Elliot Mendelson, who was an associate director on Good Morning America beginning in 1988 and also served as backup director before recently joining the daytime talk show The Chew. "There's competition for the stories, for the guests, for getting news on first," says Mendelson, adding that the talent and crew also switch networks from time to time. "So it's natural," he says, "that the shows have evolved in a similar manner."
As the shows have altered and sped up, so have the jobs of the directing teams, who always need to stay one step ahead of the action. "When I first came on there were longer segments," says Joe Michaels, who's been directing the Today show for nearly 20 years. "And the tapes were longer," he says. "We used to have a little time to think about where to put a guest or camera. Now it's so fast."
Michaels was taking a break outside the control room after a Tuesday morning shift in late August. His team had launched the 7 a.m. block with an exhausting battery of major news stories including developments in the war in Libya, the progress of Hurricane Irene, the dismissal of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, and a fire at the island home of business magnate Richard Branson. Michaels cut back and forth between clips, anchors, guests, and news packages, all within the first 23 minutes of the show, which gave viewers little reason to change channels and the directing team zero opportunity to ease up.
Adding to the complexity of the operation was an unrelenting succession of screen graphics. "Twenty years ago," says Michaels, "we had a beautifully clean show." These days the screen is an array of banners, scrolling news tickers, and factoids that he and his associate director, Erica Grody Levens, have to keep straight.
"Her job is probably 10 times harder," says Michaels. "There are more tapes and more graphics. She has to be unbelievably organized. She stands by every remote, which relieves me. While she's timing the show, she marks my scripts and hands them to me."
Levens, who's worked for NBC for 26 years and has been the permanent associate director on the Today show since 1996, sits in the control room to Michaels' left, where she runs a stopwatch to ensure they start and end segments on time while also coordinating tape
traffic and anticipating potential snags.
She additionally communicates with satellite feeds, gathering roll cues from remote correspondents prior to their televised moment and alerting them to their hit times and to whom they'll be speaking. When the correspondents later update their feeds without live talent to respond to, Levens cues them in their ears. "The timing is critical here to make a seamless live fix," she says.
Levens recalls years ago when producers relaxed the show's timing noose, making it easier to extend an engaging segment or pull the plug if one went flat. "It enabled us to move the time around," she says. But it came with a price. "Sometimes it's so fast and there are so many changes that I'm like, 'What just happened?'
"I never know what I'm going to encounter," continues Levens, who takes note of any particularly funny, telling, or otherwise memorable moments from each show. As each year draws to a close, she compiles them into a highlights tape that airs on the program. "There's never a dull day," she says.
At Good Morning America is associate director Jerry Jordan, who's worked at ABC for almost 30 years, long enough to remember when putting on the show was easier. "It's much, much, much more hectic in the mornings now."
Jordan used to rise at 3 a.m., but now he gets cracking at 1:30 a.m. to allow more time to collect all the video elements he'll need to cover news stories. During the broadcast, he usually operates the playback machines in the network's digital media center, where he might easily roll 15 clips in the first minute and a half of the program. Nowadays, three associate directors work the tape side of the show where there once was only one.
The push by producers to present the latest breaking news means that stories are cut all night long and often re-edited at the last possible moment. "Sometimes we're getting pieces nanoseconds before they air," says Jordan, which makes it more challenging for him to screen tapes beforehand. They end up doing a lot more cueing on the fly. "We're jumping in the director's ear," he says.
Working on this kind of show is definitely a hands-on experience. "There's no way our show could ever be automated," adds Jordan. "There are too many changes. The volume of information that goes on air is too massive and fast to adjust to automation."
At the same time, Jordan is a self-described "adrenaline junkie" and wouldn't have it any other way. "There's nothing like live TV," says Jordan. "It's instant gratification. Two hours feels like 15 minutes."
Stage managers similarly feel the crunch. Since they're responsible for herding the talent to the right spots and getting them on and off the air on time, they've had to quicken everyone's steps to match the shows' faster clip.
"No matter how long you do this job, it's a shock to the system," says Traub, who's been stage managing Today for 28 years, including when it expanded from two to three hours in 2000, and, more recently, to four hours. He was reminded of his long tenure Today when actress Soleil Moon Frye arrived to tout her new book. She greeted Traub with a hug. "Whoa, that's scary," says Traub, referring to the decades that have zipped by since he first met her as the adolescent star of the '80s sitcom Punky Brewster.
Traub has also witnessed Studio 1A in Rockefeller Plaza undergo several renovations. The show currently boasts five sets on the lower level, which keep him on the move, including an interview corner, couch area, news podium, anchor desk, and an extra space for ad hoc stagings. A kitchen set is located upstairs.
Traub says before the show moved to its street level location in 1994, it was taped on the third floor of NBC's headquarters. "Doing anything outside took a tremendous effort," he says, describing how they ran cables down the center of the building and down the block. "Or up eight flights to the roof," he says, recalling segments with Martha Stewart barbecuing on the roof that required the crew to traipse through people's offices: "Oh, sorry, we'll be out in a minute."
Now it's become common for the show to host weddings outside or to construct obstacle courses and mini ski mountains on the Plaza. Audience members queue up with their signs, peering into the studio windows early on. As the show progresses, the talent steps outside to fraternize or host an event. By the end of Today, Traub will have shepherded the talent in and out four times.
Stage managers also serve as the eyes and ears of the director. They block the show and ensure, for example, that the cameras and their serpentine cords move in an orderly manner. They communicate the director's instructions to the crew. This morning Traub tells technicians how Michaels wants a segment on skin care lit. And there are countless other details to fuss with. Traub explains to a first-time guest how to favorably angle her posture on the couch and where to look for the teleprompter. While rehearsing another segment, he asks Roker to boost his chair seat, "because you look lower than everyone else." All the while, he's updating everyone to the countdown.
"Six minutes. Six minutes to air," he says, loud enough for all to hear. When it's closer to airtime, he moves in front of co-anchors Carl Quintanilla, who is subbing for Matt Lauer, and Ann Curry. "Forty-five seconds. Thirty seconds. Fifteen to run," says Traub, continuing on with "5-4-3," when he silently points to the camera that Curry should look into. As the segment progresses, he directs their focus to other cameras.
Once Traub gets word from Michaels, via his earpiece, to wrap things up, Traub signals to the talent with another assortment of hand gestures: Crossed wrists means 30 seconds. A shaking fist indicates 15 seconds.
Except for a period in the late '80s to early '90s, when Good Morning America took the lead, Today has dominated the ratings and often steered the agenda. Good Morning America, for instance, constructed a similar glass-walled, street level studio in what is the most high-
traffic area of Manhattan—Times Square. The move ensured the show of big crowds for its daily outdoor segments. Recently, anchor Josh Elliott clambered onto a camel posted outside the studio and rode it around Times Square to the delight of spectators.
Throughout the summer, Good Morning America also presents a Friday concert series in Central Park. "Our stage managers," says associate director Mendelson, "are running from Times Square up to Central Park with talent. They have to be well-versed, not only for a news program cueing talent sitting at a desk, but in racing around in front of live audiences with major acts."
Eddie Luisi, the most senior stage manager on the show, has become particularly adept at motivating the outdoor audiences, first warming them up with a few jokes. "I give them the spiel," he says. He later cues them when to clap, wave, or hoist signs.
Luisi's tenure traces back to the mid-'80s, when anchors David Hartman and Joan Lunden were the it team. The show was broadcast out of a tiny enclosed studio off 67th Street, where the backdrop was changed seasonally and a movable green chroma key screen was still being utilized for overlaying images like the maps in weather reports. "I'd have to yell to the carpenter, 'Bring in the chroma key,'" says Luisi, explaining that the weather anchor wouldn't actually be pointing at a genuine weather map, but at a blank green screen. "Now we use monitors," he adds. "It's no longer make-believe."
Luisi has met four presidents and soothed the concerns of countless megastars such as Prince, who once prickly suggested he might not perform as scheduled if the sound didn't meet his standards. Luisi coaxed him in his playful manner: "I said, 'Mr. Prince, if you do go on-air, you go on in five minutes.' He winked at me," recalls Luisi, who likes to keep things light and friendly, even with his hand signals. "We wave bye-bye when it's time to wrap," he says, having jettisoned the standard throat-cutting gesture.
CBS' The Early Show, the youngest of the three morning news programs, has also staged its share of events on its plaza at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, including rock concerts and fashion shows. But it recently decided to curtail those activities. "The new leadership at CBS wants to be more news-oriented," says stage manager Tony Mirante. "So we're getting away from that laughing and carrying on with the people outside and cooking and music and stuff like that. We're trying to gear the show more toward straight news."
Mirante has been working the CBS morning shows since before The Early Show. (The Early Show launched in '99 on the heels of CBS This Morning and its predecessors.) "I've been the constant for 25 years," says Mirante, who estimates that he's worked with as many as eight different anchor teams and participated in countless specials, including coverage of three Winter Olympics and a Ringo Starr concert in Liverpool, often serving as the field director. He recently stage managed a town hall meeting with President Obama that aired on the show.
"Over the years," he says, "I've probably done everything you can think of." No matter how things change, he says, "you have to make people comfortable and feel they can trust you."
That includes the show's newest director, Randi Clarke Lennon, who turns to Mirante first thing each morning to talk through the rundown and block the show together, mutually determining where props should go and guests should sit and how the camera operators can best skirt one another as they move into position. "No one knows the show like Tony," says Lennon. "He will never let you fail."
Thirty-two-year-old Lennon is an indication of how the network morning news shows continue to evolve. She started as a production assistant on Dateline 10 years ago and landed the full-time position in September, apparently the first woman to do so on a network weekday morning show. To which she says, "If I can give even one person the idea that they have a future, it's great for me."
People who work on the morning shows tend to describe them as one big family. And within the Today family, says co-anchor Curry, "Mark is definitely the egghead brother." Sure enough, while rehearsing her lines, Curry turns to Traub for advice on how best to say "Caribbean." Should she emphasize the second syllable or the third? she asks.
But the atmosphere wasn't always so relaxed. When Traub first came onboard, the crew was expected to maintain a more buttoned-up presence. "The attitude was, 'Oh, we can't have the crew laughing or reacting to the talent,'" says Traub. Consequently the talent worked in more of a vacuum, bereft of spontaneous feedback from the team stationed just a few feet away.
That was also true at Good Morning America. "We never used to show behind the cameras. And now people want to see that," says Mendelson, describing how directors often instruct handheld camera operators to turn things around and show the stage managers interacting with the talent. In his job as stage manager, Luisi has become so much a part of the cast that audience members often ask him for his autograph.
Traub says things especially loosened up at Today after DGA Award- and Emmy-winning director Bucky Gunts shifted over from sports in 1989. His congenial style facilitated greater interaction. After Katie Couric came onboard in 1991, the director's team became even more integral to the content and energy of the show. "Katie would ask us all the time, 'Which is better, this way or this way?'" says Traub.
Nowadays, Traub doesn't wait to be asked. And his laugh is a vital part of the soundscape. "It's probably one of the greatest parts of the show," says Michaels, who recalls when he and Traub were traveling on a plane, and the person seated next to him learned what he did for a living and had only one question. It didn't have anything to do with Katie Couric or Matt Lauer, says Michaels. "He said, 'Who's that guy with the big laugh?' I said, 'You want to meet him?'"