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The Man Behind the Obama Show

Forbes – While the nation hones in on the words of Barack Obama at next week’s Democratic National Convention, Ricky Kirshner will be focused on the lights. And the video screens. And the musical acts.

As an executive producer of next week’s heavily hyped political circus in Denver, Kirshner is in charge of energizing the Democratic Party and putting on a press-worthy production.

“It’ll be a success in my mind if all everyone is talking about after Thursday night is how great the speech was,” Kirshner says by phone from the Colorado convention site. “Because that would mean that everything else went OK.”

The DNC is a political tradition that dates back to 1832, when Democrat Martin Van Buren secured his position as running mate to incumbent president Andrew Jackson. Nearly two centuries later, the summertime spectacle is packed with political speeches, musical performances and celebrity cameos from Hollywood stars like Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino and Ben Affleck.

The Denver host committee estimates the party’s four-day affair will likely cost about $60 million, which, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, is some $10 million more than the 2004 DNC.

All of this as the television ratings sag: Only 15.5 million viewers on average tuned in to the DNC in 2004, down 24% from 1992–the highest viewership since 1984–according to Nielsen Media Research. By comparison, 27 million viewers tune in to watch Fox’s American Idol on a weekly basis.

Though the only audience Kirshner says he’s concerned with is inside the convention hall–he’s quick to point out he’s employed by the DNC, rather than a broadcast network–he’s optimistic about this year’s television ratings given all of the interest that the primary race garnered. Some 15,000 media personnel are expected to attend the convention.

A production of this size and stature is nothing new for the 48-year-old son of music legend Don Kirshner. As the Emmy-winning founder of New York-based event production firm RK Productions, he’s produced everything from the Tony Awards to the Super Bowl.

This upcoming display will mark his fourth consecutive turn as a producer of the DNC, an event Kirshner first got a taste for back in 1976. A family friend had been in charge of security at the time and offered him, then just 16-years-old, a job as a page.

“I still have my blue page jacket with all of the pins and buttons on it,” he says. “My wife tried to throw it out but I hid in the back of the closet.”

Now, 32 years later, Kirshner has a staff of 400 to 500 people, including stagehands and production crew, to make sure the four-day, two-location event comes off. The New York-based producer has been working on the production for over a year, living in Denver since July 9.

Kirshner has been joined throughout the process by co-executive producer Mark Squier, a veteran political consultant who worked on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Thus far, he’s been pleased with the partnership and the kind of balance it provides. Kirshner says Squier offers the political knowledge he lacks, leaving him to focus on the entertainment side of the event.

“Sometime they’ll be talking about a politician, and I honestly have no idea who they are,” he admits. “All of the politicos in the room look at me like I’m crazy, but, you know, I know production, and that’s all that matters.”

With less than a week left, Kirshner is busy making sure everything from the stage design, to the audio, to the lighting is in place. Unlike the seven-minute load time he was permitted during the Super Bowl halftime show, he and Squier will have had three weeks to get the Pepsi Center ready. (Thursday’s acceptance speech at nearby 75,000-seat Invesco Field will be more last minute, since there is a Broncos game the weekend before.)

While Kirshner won’t yet divulge the musical acts or other convention highlights, he says the event is bound to be a splash. And if it isn’t, you’ll know.

“If you see me on TV,” he warns, “something went wrong.”

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