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100,000 balloons a trial for producer

Don Mischer apologizes for profane tirade aired live during CNN's convention coverage.

July 31, 2004|John Horn and Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writers

As the producer of the Democratic National Convention, Don Mischer had predicted that Thursday night's balloon drop celebrating the nominations of Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards would be memorable.

Mischer got his wish -- but hardly for the reasons he intended.

When his 100,000 balloons clung to Boston's FleetCenter ceiling and didn't rain down on the delegates and their candidates as expeditiously as planned, Mischer was caught, on national TV, uttering a profanity into his control-room microphone. The undeleted "f-word" was carried live by CNN, whose audience, during that hour, averaged slightly more than 4 million viewers.

"Jesus, we need more balloons," Mischer was heard to say. "I want all balloons to go.... No confetti. No confetti. No confetti. I want more balloons. What's happening to the balloons? All balloons -- where the hell -- there's nothing falling.... What the ---- are you guys doing up there?"

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer immediately apologized for broadcasting the remarks. Mischer said from his Los Angeles home Friday that he was equally contrite.

"I feel terrible about it, and I deeply apologize to anyone I might have offended," Mischer said in an interview.

Though networks often use a tape delay to delete any profanities, CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson said the cable network generally doesn't rely on a delay for live news events where off-color material is unlikely.

CNN said it had received permission from Mischer to air audio from the control room from time to time to provide behind-the-scenes flavor. Though all networks had access to the audio for planning purposes, none had a similar arrangement.

"It's live television, and we can't predict everything that will happen," Robinson said. "There are many more important stories coming out of the convention, and we've moved on."

Mischer said he had no idea his control-room comments were being broadcast at the time. He said his microphone had a switch allowing him to update the networks and media, including CNN, about schedule changes but that the switch was "unequivocally" in the off position during the balloon drop.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "It was so chaotic at the end. I had absolutely no idea my voice was being broadcast live by CNN, and had I known it, I would have chosen some very different adjectives."

Mischer said that he and his production team had planned the balloon drop for months, with 22 crew members in the rafters ready to release them in a blizzard of colors. "Everything had been going so well all week. And when they didn't come down in the first minute, I got very frustrated," he said. "I looked up and all these balloons weren't falling, and I lost it."

It was one of the rare foul-ups for Mischer, an Emmy-winning producer of such events as Olympic opening ceremonies, who was working on the convention for the first time.

The Federal Communications Commission said as of Friday morning it had received 25 complaints about the incident. Suzanne Tetreault, chief of staff of the FCC's enforcement bureau, said that the group has no jurisdiction because the episode occurred on cable instead of broadcast networks.

Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, a partisan organization that alleges a liberal political slant in the national press, said he understands that even if Mischer were not aware that his microphone was on at the time, "that's an embarrassing thing, and it's too common on television."

Graham said he sees Mischer's "mistake" differently from how he viewed rock star Bono's use of a sexual expletive during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards when he accepted a trophy. "When Bono did it, he knew what he was doing," Graham said. "He knew he was live. I think this was just a mistake, but it's not a mistake you'd want to repeat. Then again, CNN can also argue that not many 6-year-olds were watching the convention at 11 on the East Coast."

Though insiders said that the Democratic National Committee was disappointed with the unexpected denouement to its weeklong love fest, officials put a bright face on the glitch.

"The week as a whole was a great one for us," said Josh Earnest, the DNC's regional media director. "As far as controversies go, this one's just filled with hot air."

*

Times staff writers Maria Elena Fernandez and Elizabeth Jensen contributed to this report.

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