When The Observer met Katie Thomson at Landmarc restaurant in Columbus Circle, we wanted to congratulate her. We were beaten to it.
“Monica Lewinsky sent a note saying congratulations,” she said. Thomson, sipping green tea, was wrapping up her first week as the senior producer for Piers Morgan Tonight.
“She’s really lovely,” she added.
Lewinsky was a pivotal figure in Thomson’s career as a television booker and producer. Over the phone with Lewinsky’s lawyer in 1998, Thomson clinched the first interview with the presidential paramour for her boss at the time, Barbara Walters. Thomson remembered watching the broadcast in Walters’ apartment on the Upper East Side.
“We looked out the windows, and the streets were empty. Someone said, ‘Everyone is watching the show,’” she remembered. Seventy-four million people watched, making it the highest rated single-network interview ever.
In her memoir, Audition (Knopf, 2008), Walters described Thomson as her “imaginative and aggressive” booker. The job is notoriously cutthroat, and bookers are known to crawl under security gates and climb through windows for access to the best guests.
On this point, Thomson demurred. She doesn’t do as much of that dirty work as some of her peers, she said. After years booking high-profile celebrities for interviews on Barbara Walters specials and, before that, Larry King Live, it’s a bit strange to be the one being interviewed, she added.
But at CNN, where nontalents like producers and publicists can be found in blue jeans, Thomson is dressed to Walters’ description, with cat’s-eye glasses and towering, black suede stilettos.
Her former bosses King and Walters have driven their ratings with confessional celebrities, but Thomson isn’t the star-struck sort. She’s a foreign-policy wonk at heart. Her first jobs were doing research for The McLaughlin Group and producing for BBC in London. She sits on the Council on Foreign Relations.
“I’m most interested in foreign leaders, people who make the news and the history happen,” she said.
She remembered Rudy Giuliani walking into the ABC studio with ash from ground zero still on his shoes.
She was visibly pregnant with her daughter, now 8, on the set of 20/20’s interview with Fidel Castro. The dictator advised her to have the baby in Cuba.
When she cleaned out her office at ABC two weeks ago, she found a contract Timothy McVeigh signed in prison, agreeing to a pretrial interview, until the judge shot it down. She found a similar note from Princess Diana, promising to speak with Walters in the fall of 1997, just after her death.
“Those are the ones that got away,” she said.
As for Thomson, she ignored previous offers to leave Walters, whom she called “a deserved legend,” including a chance to go to The Today Show when Meredith Viera took over in 2006. Now the timing seemed right. Retirement must be on the horizon for Walters, at age 81. On Piers Morgan Tonight, Thomson will help build a show from scratch. As senior producer, she now oversees the show’s team of bookers, reserving special, long-term projects for herself.
But are her foreign-relations ambitions a fit for Morgan, who in his first two weeks has interviewed only one world leader, Condoleezza Rice, but two Kardashians?
“Piers is a journalist,” Thomson said.
Morgan, best known in the States for judging America’s Got Talent, cut his teeth as an editor at the UK’s Daily Mirror. And unlike his predecessor, King, he’s not averse to preparation.
A few minutes after Thomson left Landmarc, Piers Morgan Tonight abandoned its taped interview with Colin Firth to do a live show on the protests in Egypt. Morgan had barely touched down from filming a segment with Oprah Winfrey in Chicago, and he had only a few hours to prepare for a complex breaking and re-breaking political situation. The show’s ratings dipped that night—lost in the chorus of Egypt coverage—but Morgan held his own.
“I think he did a great job,” Thomson said afterward. The team was preparing for a second live episode on Egypt. The stage manager posed on set for test shots. Christiane Amanpour would be streamed in from Cairo. Morgan was at the gym.
The nice thing about being the booker is, it’s her job to look ahead. Thomson was off to “business drinks.”
“I can’t say who with—it’s a secret future show.”