If you saw the 2020 Billboard Latin Music Awards — which aired Oct. 21 on Telemundo — you likely noticed that all dancers and musicians on stage, except for the featured artists, were wearing masks. You probably also noticed there was an audience, gathered close to the stage for what appeared to be a cozy atmosphere on screen, even as wide shots of the BB&T Center showed a massive arena with grandiose 360 staging featuring seven separate stages.
They were but a few of many elements necessary to take to fruition what show producer Mary Black describes as “Two shows: The COVID show and the Billboard Latin Music Awards show.”
Black who produced this edition of the awards with Telemundo and her production company, MBS Special Events, is a respected veteran of live television production whose credits include Premios Lo Nuestro and, for the past five years, the Latin AMAs, also on Telemundo. However, she says, “I have never seen a show done like this. Then again, we have never had COVID before.”
We spoke with Black about how she conceived and executed the most challenging show of her career. The pay-off? The 2020 Billboard Latin Music Awards reached 3.5 million total viewers on linear television, ranking as the No. 1 Spanish-language special in primetime since the onset of the pandemic, according to Nielsen NPM. It also generated 45.9 million engagements across Telemundo-owned platforms plus 38 million engagements across other platforms.
You also produce the Latin AMAs, where you have two stages. Here, you had seven. Can you break that down for us?
COVID was a determining factor in how the show was produced. We had seven stages, but we had to design them so they didn’t feel separate. We had two where the nominations were presented; we had one for the show host; and then we had four stages for performances — two for dancers, two for musicians. That’s why I say we had two performances: the COVID show and the Latin Billboard show.
Explain how these seven stages translated to safety against COVID-19?
Each stage was color-coded and independent of the other. For example, the green and yellow stages were for dancers, and the yellow stage had its dedicated dancers, audio technicians and stage manager. Stage hands worked on a single stage and each time we used a stage, we disinfected it after every use.
All the dancers had masks, all the musicians had masks. I used 16 dancers when I normally use 30. There was no congregating allowed in the aisles or green rooms. So everyone felt very protected.
This sounds like a very complex endeavor. Who designed the stages?
We had to sit down and figure out how to make it a safe space. Rodrigo Proal, an industrial engineer, designed it. [Proal is CEO of Dharma, a production design studio that has worked with the iHeartRadio Music Awards, The Late Late Show and Daddy Yankee’s Puerto Rico residency among many others.] When we spoke and I told him we needed to have several stages, he came up with the idea of designing it like a coliseum: There was a center but it was surrounded. We wanted it to look grandiose but cozy at the same time. It looked spectacular but there weren’t empty audience seats around. It was full of energy.
Were the empty seats a major concern?
We saw other award shows and we felt the emptiness of the venues. We wanted to make sure people felt the warmth. In our case, we had some 120 seat fillers and they were tested for COVID that day.
There must have been hiccups?
Every day there was a challenge. Every day. In a structure like that, for example, how do you place speakers and mikes so they aren’t seen? Filming was a challenge. But at the end of the day, my job as producer is to protect the artist, but musically and physically. I normally have a full morning dress rehearsal the day of the show, for example. This time we couldn’t do it because of COVID. So we did the full run-through without artists to have less people in the space. Everything was done trying to keep people safe, and I think we did a good job.
Which number was the most challenging?
Actually none. Doing this show was a delight. But separating the presenters from the winners was emotionally difficult, because that’s the moment everybody wants to hug. But everything else was wonderful. I had staging but no props, so everything was very accessible.
One of my favorite moments was the Armando Manzanero tribute. [Manzanero was honored with the lifetime achievement award.] He identifies as a Mayan, and he loved that the staging represented that.
I have to say, my favorite moment was when Ozuna brought his two young children onstage. How was that executed?
When he played the song for me [“Gracias,” an emotional song where he thanks loved ones and life], I loved it. And I always think these shows are the opportunity to showcase something different, not necessarily the hit. “Gracias” was a heartfelt song he did at an emotional moment. His team suggested bringing his children. Initially it was going to be a surprise, but then we were afraid he would get too emotional during the show, so during rehearsal, we asked him what he thought and he loved it.