‘Together at Home’ Producer Talks Landing the Rolling Stones, Uniting Networks, Ignoring WHO Politicization

In striking the balance between Jimmy Fallon's goofy "Safety Dance" and Taylor Swift's heartbreaking "Soon You'll Get Better," Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans mostly trusted the artists themselves to have the right instincts about tone as the special landed in a tough week.

One World livestream Rolling Stones
Global Citizen

You can sometimes get what you want — even an attention-grabbing appearance by the separate-but-united Rolling Stones — when you’re Global Citizen and there is seemingly no global superstar too big to turn down “One World: Together at Home.” Saturday night’s prime-time show included turns from a Beatle, Paul McCartney, too, as well as currently mania-inspiring performers like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Lizzo and the mutually sheltering Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello.

Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans has pulled off big, all-star charity projects before, including annual Central Park gigs, but nothing like pulling together eight hours of programming (the two-hour prime-time TV show was preceded by a six-hour web live-stream) in a matter of… we’ll let him say how many days. Variety spoke with him Sunday afternoon about waiting on a friend in the form of the Stones’ last-minute contribution, plus the trickiness of settling on a right tone amid the coronavirus crisis, how it worked out to have CBS, ABC and NBC holding hands, and his feelings about the recent politicization of the World Health Organization.

Anyone who’s interviewed him knows he’s more likely to go fanboy over health care workers than he is about the pop stars he rubs elbows with in the regular course of his work, but even a philanthropist as dedicated to keeping his eye on the philanthropic prize as Evans couldn’t contain his enthusiasm about the Stones.

VARIETY: Did you have the program locked in well enough ahead of time that you felt confident it’d be smooth sailing going on the air?

EVANS: To be really honest, it was extremely hard to stand up a program of this nature in two and a half weeks. We literally only started producing it two and a half weeks ago. And so the edit, all the sound mixing, graphics, everything was down to the wire. But we didn’t leave ourselves a choice. It was sink or swim. And I was so thrilled with the result. I didn’t even get to watch a lot of it last night, because we were working the whole night around it. But just the bits that I saw, I was so moved by the powerful stories of the community health workers and how their lives were touched by the pandemic and how they’ve been serving the community so diligently… and by the songs and the artistry and the messages of hope from world leaders that were a part also. It felt cohesive, which I was thrilled with, when you’re trying to pull together more than seven hours of programming in two and a half weeks from a standing start.

The Rolling Stones were the last announced, on Friday. Would they count as the artist you were sort of most holding your breath to see if it’d come off?

It definitely was the Rolling Stones that I was holding my breath for, because as you saw, their performance was about five minutes and 12 seconds or thereabouts, so that’s a fairly decent chunk of the show. And we only got final confirmation on the Wednesday beforehand. Every day was like a week for us this past week. [Laughs.] That was definitely the one that I was most… I wouldn’t say anxious, but just most conscious of. And when David Joseph from UMG and Joyce (Smyth), who’s their longtime manager, called and said that they were completely confirmed and fully in, our whole team was so thrilled. There’s really only one band in the world called the Rolling Stones, so that elevated the power of what was achieved in an already magnificent night.

Did you wait till you actually had the piece in hand from them to announce, or did their piece come in even after that?

We waited until we had the piece in hand before we announced it. Because we didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves.

Did you talk with people in the Stones’ camp about how they accomplished it? 

Well, they told me a funny story about it, but I probably shouldn’t give it away, because I don’t know if I’m allowed to. I wish I could tell you, but it’s their news to tell. But logistically, I don’t even know how they pulled it off in time, with extraordinarily mixed vocals, and yet they did it from four entirely different parts of the country with very, very, very limited technology.

Did you worry at all about having an inconsistency of tone with so many artists involved each making their own choices?

We wanted to give them some direction just about tonality, but you know, artists have this amazing ability to have their finger on the pulse of the sentiment of society, and so we didn’t want to over-direct what people did. We just wanted to provide some initial direction. We encouraged some artists in terms of their directionality. But I think they all struck a perfect time, whether it was Eddie Vedder’s performance in his room, which was fully spectacular and so moving, or whether it was Lizzo’s performance, which I thought was breathtaking, or when Sam Smith and John Legend performed together… I also think the performance of Christine and the Queens that was in the stream, as well, for the six hours (before the prime-time telecast)… We’ve gotten as much positive feedback about the stream, globally, as we have about the broadcast.

Adding six hours of live-streaming on before the two hours of TV was biting off a lot.

It seems like there were different demographics that were engaged. I think we had a younger demographic around the world tuned in for the stream, also because it was a bit earlier in the day. We’ve heard stories of families around the world that tuned in for the full eight hours, or some that tuned in for the six-hour digital and then the kids went to bed…. The reason why we wanted to do the full six (additional) hours was because we thought it was really important that people all around the world could be part of this. If we did it from 8 till 10:00 p.m. eastern in the U.S., then that was obviously already too late for people in Europe and across Africa, and also potentially extremely early for Asian time. And so I think that the power of this interesting mix between digital and linear worked, because even though they felt like slightly different shows, they felt like they were brother and sister to one another. They came from the same value-set sensibility and outcome of trying to make sure that we were telling stories about the powerful work of community health workers, while at the same time educating and informing the audience about what can be done to stop COVID-19 and what can be done to fight and end the coronavirus.

We also wanted to make sure that the stream was available to everyone all around the world over the next 72 hours. And that’s why the BBC’s highlights tonight was so important. That’s why it aired in Germany this evening as well and across Europe.

Going back to the overall tone: A few weeks ago when Fox did a music special, there was some criticism that some of the performances were too frivolous for the moment. And we saw some opposite responses about your show. Looking at reader comments, there were a few from people who said it felt depressing to them when they tuned it just wanting to hear something that would cheer them up. Ultimately it seems like most people who watched loved it, but in a moment like this, you’re going to get at least a little criticism no matter what approach you land on. You had to be consciously going for a delicate balance.

Well, I’m a big believer that you can’t tell people how to feel. And so all I think we can do in our job is to provide a platform for people to be able to express creatively the various range of emotions that everyone’s going through. Some people are devastated [and want music that takes that into account]. And as you say, some people do want to be cheered up, and that’s okay as well. And so when Jimmy Fallon created his beautiful song with the Roots [a spoof version of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” featuring choreography from medical workers], I think that certainly cheered up a lot of people. Whereas I think that Taylor Swift song (“Soon You’ll Get Better”), which was referencing the (cancer) battle her mum was going through at the time, was undoubtedly going to be extremely hard, because it was so deeply personal. Circumstantially, we knew that this time was going to be a time where there were peak deaths in the United States, and peak layoffs. So you’re going to have some people who are dealing with the utter devastation of that, and some people wanting to be cheered up. I think we gave people a bit of both.

As you said, you didn’t even have a chance to watch the entire show in continuity as it aired. But were there highlights for you?

I found two songs to be extremely moving for me. I loved the song by Burna Boy, because it reminded me of why Nigeria’s response to COVID-19 will be so important for the next wave. I thought his voice there was essential. And I also loved the Rolling Stones, because for me, what COVID-19 has taught me is that you can have all the best plans in the world, but unless we have strong health systems, all those plans crumble overnight. And so I think what they sang, “you can’t always get what you want” — that’s it, to me.

Let’s talk about the World Health Organization. What a moment to be extolling their work and be raising funds for them. (Lady Gaga and Global Citizen helped raise more than $125 million, from corporate and philanthropic sponsors, without ever asking viewers for money.) It’s really just this past week the WHO became a headline-making political football in America, with the president going on the attack and threatening to withdraw funding. You were never going to do a politically targeted or divisive show. So how did you feel as you watched the WHO become a controversial, polarizing thing, where normally it would have been something almost everyone could agree about?

I think Lady Gaga put it really well when she and I together with Dr. Tedros did the final press conference the day before the event. She said that the whole goal was that this would be a love letter to the world and a love letter to the community health workers. And it was great because we had a team meeting earlier today with all of our Global Citizen staff on it, and we just had everyone go around and share the feedback they’ve had. And so many of the staff had received calls overnight from nurses and doctors and midwives and lab practitioners from all across America and around the world saying that they felt that love; they felt that attention on them. And if anything, that’s what the WHO is designed to do. It’s designed to strengthen health systems so that healthcare professionals can do their job more effectively. And so I’m just glad that that outcome was felt. I had this beautiful, lovely tweet from a healthcare worker in Seattle who said how moved she was by the show, and for me, she’s the true hero. So I wrote back to her immediately and just said I’m so thankful that it did exactly what we wanted it to do.

As for the politicization of the WHO, when you are the key actor in a major global crisis, then it is not uncommon for world leaders of all stature to try to point fingers, because politics is in some instances about survival. And so I think that it’s not so surprising that it has become a political football. But I think that what we have to remember is that there’s no second World Health Organization. There’s only one. It’s auspiced by the United Nations to be the multilateral institution to help respond. And it’s got the entire backing of the United Nations general assembly. And in 2019 it had its record fundraising year, ever, so there’s clearly a lot of support for it as an institution. So I think that with that support, they need to continue their efforts to provide personal protective equipment, investment in vaccines and immunizations, and the best-in-class research so that we can fight COVID-19 immediately.

Finally, how important was giving equal weight to the three big broadcast networks — CBS, NBC and ABC? They were each represented with their newscasters participating as well as Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert co-hosting. Did they feel the balance worked, so they didn’t have to worry about being competitive this particular night?

Oh, absolutely. I spoke last night — and I’m going to speak to them in three minutes, actually — to Doug Vaughan, to Jack Sussman, and to Scott Iger at the three networks; we’re about jump on a call together and do a debriefing. We formed a real bond amongst the group. It’s amazing. There’s a genuine sense that we all are fighting a common enemy. You definitely felt that through the unity of the three hosts, but the networks equally — across all their daytime programming, their evening shows, their morning shows — consistently showed up in support of the campaign. I don’t know if you saw the ratings, but I think between them they got over (15 million) viewers last night, and that’s just just linear, the first count, not including any of the cable, not including any of the digital. So it’s a testament to their hard work.

It’s very hard to pull numbers across the board from cable and streaming, but would you hazard a guess at how many people might have tuned in altogether?

The challenge we’ve got is it was in 120 odd countries linearly, and then you had every digital player. Like, if you just take Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu in China alone, that number would be insane just in that country, because there’s a billion people there. And then it was in Indonesia, and on all the major stations in India, which has a billion people. So if I gave you a number now, it would just be hyperbole. … Also, Facebook alone had more than 20 million uniques, and so did YouTube, 20 million uniques. That’s just two platforms. … You can’t be on every single media on the planet at a time when the entire planet is indoors and people are consuming media at record rates and not have extraordinary numbers.