This summer, we’re putting a spotlight on the industry’s top producers; getting the inside story about their shows, how they got to where they are, and advice they have for future TV journalists.
In 13 years at CNN, Susie Xu has risen from intern, to field reporter, to producer for “Larry King Live,” to her current role as executive producer of “Erin Burnett OutFront.” Xu was born in Tianjin, China, the second child in her family, born during China’s one-child policy. “From the beginning of my life, I was really not supposed to be born,” Xu tells us. “The government came down on my parents and said, ‘you’re not supposed to have a second child.’ But my parents defied them, and I think that’s shaped a lot of who I am.” Xu and her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was four. She grew up in Grove City, PA and graduated from Penn State.
TVNewser: You’ve risen up the ranks to an EP position pretty quickly. What helped you climb the ladder?
Xu: A lot of it was taking every opportunity that CNN gave me and just running with it. I don’t say this as someone who drinks the Kool-Aid of the company, but CNN has provided so many opportunities in terms of different skills that I can gain, different jobs that I can do. I started out doing show producing, running prompter, running scripts to Wolf Blitzer. Suddenly, there was an opportunity in New York and be part of the live production. I jumped on that opportunity. Within, not even two years, an opportunity opened up in the Beijing bureau to field and package produce. I had never been on the newsgathering side of things, but because I’m fluent in Chinese, and because I have that interest and that drive, my boss at the time at CNNI gave me a chance. From there, producing for Larry King just fell into my lap, and they called me when I was just coming home from Beijing, and said, “we need you to go film a special about transvestites in Miami… I knew nothing about that, but I just thought, ‘well, that’s really interesting, I’ll jump on a plane and go do it.’ A lot of it is just throwing caution to the wind and jumping in head first and figuring out as you go.
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TVNewser: What was it like for you producing in the Beijing bureau?
Xu: I found it to be more difficult to acclimate than I thought, because I do know the language and have family there. I’ve been to China many times to visit family, so I thought this was going to be a piece of cake. But operating as journalist in a country that’s so restrictive will always take some getting used to. You know you’re going into a communist country; you know they’re going to censor you, but at the same time it’s always shocking what you’re being censored for. We did a story on a really crippling drought in Western China, and that to me was a weather story, and how it affected the country economically. But the local government really saw that as a threat, and got really paranoid, and followed us around to every single shoot. Every single location, there was a
black, unmarked car following us and trying to intimidate us from doing a story on a drought. That, in the U.S., might seem harmless, but there, you were watched, your phones were bugged, you were constantly followed. I worked with reporters whose families were sometimes intimidated because of stories we did. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I think we take it for granted in the U.S. what kind of access we have to powerful people and to people in government. For up-and-comers, if there is an international assignment, go for it, and ask questions later, because those opportunities don’t come up every day.
TVNewser: Five years into your CNN career, you produced for “Larry King Live.” What was your approach producing for the network’s then- flagship show?
Xu: I had never seen anything of that scale, and I was wowed right away. It was such a well-oiled machine, and for a show to be established like that, under Larry’s leadership, is not easy. I know that now, working on a newer show, that show really kind of ran on its own. Certainly, it was a lot of hard work; I don’t mean to make it sound simple. But the quality of the guests we brought in, the news that Larry was able to make; things like the Haiti earthquake telethon, where we were able to make a difference.
TVNewser: Did you feel more pressure working for LKL?
Xu: Oh, absolutely. The first time I met him we were meeting in New York for a shoot with Rachael Ray. I had never met him, and this is a legend that you’re meeting for the first time. I’m young and kind of inexperienced, and my flight was delayed, and everything that could go wrong went wrong, and I’m thinking my first impression with Larry is going to be horrible. I ran into the studio like a tornado, and he basically didn’t even notice. He could have cared less as I was trying to prep him and trying to say, ‘this is what we’re doing, I’m so sorry I’m late.’ He was a pro and carried on with the interview. He really can just parachute into a situation and make it shine, and working with someone like that is such a rewarding experience.
TVNewser: You’ve been EP for “OutFront” for eight months. What’s been the difference for you being at the helm compared to your previous roles?
Xu: I don’t think you ever realize until you’re here just how much a staff might be looking at you for direction in times of breaking news and uncertainty. You realize, there’s really no one else, you look around and you think maybe someone else is going to do this. When I was a senior [producer], you’re one of several. But now, you gotta make those instant decisions. Your staff is counting on you, and your anchor is counting on you to make the right decision for the show. I’m very detail oriented, and as a senior or as an EP, I think that’s good. But now, I have to look more big picture and remind myself we have a great staff that’s going to get a lot of those details, so I have to be the one to keep looking out for the brand and what we’re doing next, and thinking what is good for the show overall.
TVNewser: Do you focus more on ratings as an EP?
Xu: I look at them. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in them when they come out every day. It’s just one measure of how we’re doing. I don’t measure it just based on the number. So many different things go into why you had a good number or a bad number, so I try not to put too much emphasis on the number. I try to think ‘did we put on a good show? Did we talk about things people wanted to know more about? Were we relevant? etc.’ Those are the kind of things that matter more to me on top of making news with our newsmakers. I think those are more important than just that number.
TVNewser: You’ve worked on successful shows, and shows that were shorter-lived. What makes a show succeed or fail?
Xu: Discipline is number one. Chasing the ratings rabbit is where a lot of shows go wrong because you lose the core of who you are, who your anchor is, what your initial mission is. I really try to keep an eye on that for our show. In a success, it’s kind of the opposite. Your audience needs to know what they’re going to get from you when they tune in. TV watching is such a habit. People want to feel comfortable; they want to tune in at 7pmET and know that Erin is going to hit certain stories. You want to be able to go to your favorite anchor at different networks and know that they’re going to deliver for you.
TVNewser: The anchors you produce for always get the spotlight. What should people know about you?
Xu: This one’s always tough. I think as a producer you never talk about yourself; it’s all about the anchor. What’s shaped me a lot is being the second child in a Chinese family after the one-child rule was imposed. From the beginning of my life, I was really not supposed to be born. The government came down on my parents and said, ‘you’re not supposed to have a second child, we have a one-child policy here, and you already have one daughter and you don’t need another.’ But my parents defied them, and I think that’s shaped a lot of who I am, and I always think, wow, I wasn’t even really supposed to be around and I’m so lucky to be where I am and have the awesome opportunities I have. It’s pretty cool.