Learning from Studio 60

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My daughter gave me a great present for Christmas; the complete season of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (it's on Amazon Instant...). It’s one of my favorite shows ever, even though it lasted but one season. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It’s somewhat relevant to what we do in many ways. The premise of the show is really a look behind the scenes of the production of a weekly late-night comedy show a la Saturday Night Live. Like church, they have a show to do every week (yes, I know we don’t do a show, but the deadlines are the same). And of course, there is a creative team, and a production team (plus actors…).

One of my favorite characters is played by Timothy Bussfield; Cal is the director for the show, and every time I see him on the screen, I either laugh, or think, “That is a great attitude.” Cal is one of those low-key, funny, calm, can-do guys; the kind that you really want around. He reminds me a lot of some of the best technical directors I know. 

As I’m watching through the series, I’ve taken a few notes. Here they are.

Cal is Unflappable

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All kinds of crazy stuff happens in the world of weekly live TV. In the opening episode, the Executive Producer takes over the show, like in the movie Network. Everyone is yelling at Cal, but he remains calm and focused on what’s going on. In other episodes the power goes out and while everyone else is trying to figure out what to do, he stays calm and comes up with solutions (see #2).

All kinds of crazy stuff happens in the world of live church production. See what I did there? Sometimes someone who wasn’t supposed to speak walks up on stage. Sometimes someone who is supposed to speak ends up with the wrong mic. Maybe they were supposed to be on the stage and they stay on the floor. Maybe your pastor shows up with a whole new slide deck as he’s walking up to preach.

Staying calm is one of the best things you can do for you, your team and your leadership. If you start to panic, everyone else does too. If you stay cool, everyone else’s anxiety will be regulated and they can handle the situation. For some of you, this is hard and requires a lot of self-control. But it’s a skill worth cultivating. 

Be Solutions Oriented

One of Cal’s favorite sayings is, “It’s no problem.” When a sketch has to move, a set rebuilt, time cut or time added, Cal always comes up with a solution. A good technical director will also be solutions oriented.

When a song needs to be changed out at the last minute, or the pastor needs another dozen slides 15 minutes before doors open or the worship leader needs to add another vocalist and forgot to tell you, how do you respond? Do you come up with reasons why you can’t do it? Do you talk about the deadlines that were missed, the problems such a change creates or do you say, “It’s no problem.” 

What would happen to the reputation of technical people throughout the church if more of us responded with “It’s no problem,” more often?

Projects Confidence

When the stuff hits the fan (and it does sometimes in our world), we occasionally have to make up a plan on the fly. In addition to staying calm and working on a solution, Cal projects confidence. This is key to calming the nerves of the talent and the producers. Here is one of my favorite exchanges between Jordan McDeere, the network president and Cal. To set up the scene, they have to cut into the West Coast time delayed feed with a live segment to give an apology, and they have to remember to subtract 7 seconds for the delay. After developing the plan, this is how it goes:

Jordan: Is this going to work?
Cal: Sure
Jordan: You've done it before?
Cal: A hundred times. Well, really no, never. But I can’t think of what the problem would be.
Jordan: What could possibly go wrong?
Cal: There you go.

You really have to watch it to get a real sense for how he pulls it off. At the end of this brief exchange, you’re convinced it will work. One thing we tend to forget is that those on stage are often insecure. In many ways, they are really putting their life in our hands and when we have to come up with a plan to pull off some magic at the last minute, it’s important to at least create the illusion that you think it’s going to work.

Even if you’re scared to death that it won’t, you have to convince them it will. This is not being deceptive; it’s simply taking on the responsibility of making something happen that you are good enough to do. It’s also not being cocky—no one likes a cocky TD. It’s simply shielding them from worrying about the technical stuff that they don’t really understand anyway. Let them focus on their part, and it will all come together 

Perhaps a good goal for 2013 is to remain calm, come up with solutions and project confidence. I believe if we do that, our stock will go up with our leadership. 

By way of wrapping up, as I was writing, my friend Todd Elliott posted a piece entitled “Great Service is Everything” over at his blog. I suggest you read it as a follow up. It’s good stuff.

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