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‘Notorious’: After 32 Years at CNN, Producer Wendy Walker Finally Gets to Make Up the News

Exclusive: The former news producer, portrayed by Piper Perabo on the new ABC drama, shares her experiences moving from live news to scripted drama.

Wendy Walker and Piper Perabo

Wendy Walker and Piper Perabo

Rex/Shutterstock

You couldn’t script some of the things Wendy Walker experienced as a live news producer at CNN. But now, the new ABC drama “Notorious” aims to do just that.

The series, which launches Thursday night, stars Piper Perabo as a TV news producer who develops a friendship and alliance with a superstar defense attorney (Daniel Sunjata). The show is inspired by Walker’s lengthy CNN career and her pal, real-life defense attorney Mark Geragos.

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Walker admits she was taken aback at first of how her “Notorious” character handled things (like, say, having sex in her office right before the live telecast). But she soon adjusted to the world of dramatized television.

The veteran news producer spent 32 years at CNN (including 18 of those as executive producer of “Larry King Live”), focusing on breaking news and other live coverage. As production on “Notorious” got underway, we asked Walker to jot down a few thoughts (a production diary of sorts) on her background in news – and what it was like to cross over as a producer to the scripted side.

Wendy Walker, "Notorious"

Wendy Walker, “Notorious”

ABC

Here’s Wendy Walker’s “Notorious” diary:

MARCH 1980

Leaving my first entry-level job in TV news at ABC to pioneer the first 24-hour news network, CNN. Why does everybody call it Chicken Noodle News? They say it won’t last…and who is Ted Turner?

MARCH 2012

How did it happen that I stayed at CNN for 32 years? I was so lucky to have covered the White House for 10 years with Reagan, Bush and just enough Clinton to cover Travelgate! Loved those US/Soviet Summits.

I thought I could not top that experience, but producing “Larry King Live” for 18 years did the trick. Coming up with new show ideas that would rate for thousands and thousands of nights became my life. I remember how my kids would ask me: “Why did you give him 20 minutes on the air? Nobody is going to watch.”

Somehow I covered every major news story from 1979 to 2010, ranging from nine presidential elections, the Gulf War, and the September 11 attacks. Everything we did had to be checked and re-checked for accuracy and truth.  While most shows usually went very well, we occasionally ran into some issues. I remember once we were just about to have a guest on that turned out to be lying. So, I cancelled the live show and played a repeat. Standards and Practices was on speed dial.

Wendy Walker and Mark Geragos

Wendy Walker and Mark Geragos

ABC

FEBRUARY 2014

I have always wanted to get into scripted television so I called my friend Mark Geragos and said, “Our relationship as a larger-than-life defense attorney working with the Executive Producer of a top talk show would make a great TV series. What do you think?” After hearing me out, Mark told me to call Kenny Meiselas, a high-powered entertainment attorney in NY. If he likes the idea then “let’s go for it.” Kenny loved it then called Jeff Kwatinetz from [management company] The Firm, who also loved it. I sat down with Kenny’s colleague, Josh Barry and soon enough, we would all be spending a lot of quality time together.

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JULY 25, 2015

Mark and I met Josh Berman from Sony, the show runner and writer, with Allie Hagan, an amazing writer. We loved them both. I think they were kind of shocked to see Mark in action. Mark was the best talking head on TV. No words could describe Mark. You just have to experience him.

SEPTEMBER 21, 2015

Then there is The Pitch. ….

At CNN, I pitched two other shows that actually made it on air: One was “Nancy Grace” and the other was “CNN HEROES.”

Here is that pitching process: I called the president of CNN and told him I had an idea for a show. Then, the president said, OK.” That was it.

Fast forward to the pitching process in Scripted TV.

Oh My God. There was meeting after meeting, and rehearsal after rehearsal. Every word was scrutinized and the timing has to be just right.

I was very nervous going into the pitches. Where does everyone sit? How do we know if the network liked it?

Josh Barry explained, “They will not waste our time, if the network likes it, we will know but they won’t buy it in the meeting.”

That same day, we went to the first pitch and they said, “We want it.”  I asked my colleagues, “What does that mean, they WANT it?”

They confidently replied: “That means they want it.”

"Notorious"

“Notorious”

ABC

OCTOBER 30, 2015

When I read the pilot script of “Notorious” for the first time, my character was having sex in her office. I immediately sat at my computer to type an accurate account of what could “really” happen before the show.

I sent an email to Josh Berman, the show runner and the hardest working human I know: “Josh, the script says my character is having sex in her office a few minutes before the show. First of all, I never had sex in my office, but if I did, it would have had to be at least 45 minutes before the show, because I would have to check the live shots, check in with the guests, go over the show with the anchor, and since it is a breaking news night, there is even more to do…”

Josh wrote me back: “Wendy, this is not real. You can have sex in your office a second before the show!”

The unreal part takes a little getting used to…

Once one gets acclimated, live TV is pretty cool.  When we covered a story on “Larry King Live” repeatedly, such as the OJ Simpson case or the Scott Peterson case, the story was so riveting that it was like watching an intriguing reality show. We did 207 shows on OJ Simpson. You couldn’t write it.

But what if you COULD write it? What if you could make it up? What if you could rip an amazing story from the headlines, and take it anywhere you wanted it to go? Scripted vs. Coloring Within the Lines.  Pretty cool.

MARCH 20, 2016

Now we have a set. Being in a fake newsroom, seeing the anchor desk, walking around a control room. Trust me, it did not take long for me to feel comfortable there.

I have found myself working in the fake office of “Julia George,” the character played by Piper Perabo. So it is realistic enough!

I am on set during the scenes with Julia George that take place at “Louise Herrick Live,” or LHL. Piper definitely could have been a news producer. She is organized, passionate, super smart, and competitive.  She is very comfortable in a control room.

Piper Perabo and Daniel Sunjata, "Notorious"

Piper Perabo and Daniel Sunjata, “Notorious”

ABC

MAY 12, 2016

Pacing in my kitchen. The phone rings. On the other end of it, Josh says to me, “Are you ready to talk to ABC?”

I said, “No.”

While on hold, my daughter comes into the kitchen. I motion over to her and I say, “This is it.”

She grabs my son, and my housekeeper pours a glass of wine.  We are all sitting around the kitchen table on speakerphone.

All of a sudden, one person after another is conferenced into the line.

There is silence as we all wait.  Finally, the call with ABC begins. It starts out with “WE ARE PLEASED TO announce that we are picking up your show!”   When I heard PLEASED I started to cry, and my children quickly muted the phone!  As soon as I composed myself, they allowed the mute button to be taken off, so I could say a broken, “Thank you so much!”

Wow, what a call!

Piper Perabo, "Notorious"

Piper Perabo, “Notorious”

ABC

SEPTEMBER 7, 2016                                                                

Looking back — and forward.

With live news, you spend the day gathering video, interviewing sources, writing and preparing. If the news changes, you change. But it is all over as soon as it airs. Once you’re rolling, you can’t control it. You don’t shoot it ten different ways.  You prepare, you do a live show, and the end product stands on its own. It is either good, or it is flawed, but the flaws are out there for all to see.

When Heather Mills McCartney took off her leg and gave it to Larry on the air LIVE, it wasn’t anything I could have ever predicted, but it was a great live TV moment. When it was over, I was interviewed about it, and the reporter asked me if I was upset. I said, “Yes, I was upset that I didn’t think of telling her to do it first!”

Or there was the time we were interviewing Marlon Brando at his Mulholland Drive home. Larry and Marlon spent 90 minutes on the air together. They were having a great time. Marlon was drinking something (that may not have been coffee) out of a coffee cup during the entire show. Right before the show ended, Larry and Marlon were singing. They looked at each other and in a chance moment, they kissed live on the air — on the lips! I was sitting in a live truck outside in the driveway and I was gob smacked. Seconds later, I got a call from my boss in Atlanta.

“Why did you let them do that?”

“Do what?” I asked.

“Let them kiss on the lips?”

“Well, I guess when I was briefing Larry I did forget to tell him that if he is having a great time, and he feels like kissing Marlon on the lips, don’t do it.”

With live TV, you can’t take it over, it is what it is. But with scripted it can be even better!

I arranged for Piper to spend time in the control room at CNN during live breaking news. She said it was a real eye-opener. Piper was impressed with the producer’s ability to stay calm and multi-task. Piper was impressed with how passionate Anderson Cooper was about getting each story right. She had never seen the process. Piper now watches news differently.

Same with me. I have a new respect for every person and their jobs on the set of “Notorious.” The day runs like a well-oiled roller coaster. Every person is important. Every person contributes.

I guess I knew how much work went into a scripted TV show but until I saw it first hand, I didn’t really appreciate the process. Like Piper, I watch TV shows differently now.

At the end of the day, comparing the two, it’s a lot more fun to make it up.

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