This story is the fourth installment of a TVNewser feature named The Producer I Can’t Live Without, in which prominent TV newsers and their longtime producers talk about their successful partnerships.
Emily Atkinson was named executive producer of CNN’s The Situation Room in October 2019, but she and Wolf Blitzer have worked closely with one another for 17 years.
A CNN staffer since 1996, Atkinson started out as a booker based out of Atlanta and became a producer for American Morning. She then made the leap to D.C., starting from scratch at The Situation Room as an associate producer and rising through the ranks before achieving the top producer role three and a half years ago.
Atkinson and Blitzer continue to speak constantly throughout the day, beginning with their daily morning phone call. She anticipates what he needs before he needs it — a hallmark of a successful working partnership.
It’s rare for an on-air talent to work closely with the same producer for so many years, and we thought it would be interesting to hear from Blitzer and Atkinson about their long-lasting professional relationship and why it has proven so successful over the years. Here’s what they had to tell us:
TVNewser: How did you end up working together?
Atkinson: I basically reinvented my career 10 years in. I’ve been at CNN for 27 years. I had been a booker the first 10 years of my career and realized I wanted to shift routes. I had worked in Atlanta and New York, and I ended up coming to DC, and started over as an associate producer. That was in 2006 on The Sit Room, and I’ve been here ever since. So, I started out as an AP, became a writer, producer, and then a senior producer, and then senior broadcast producer and now ep. I’ve basically had every role on the show.
Blitzer: I remember when she joined the broadcast and I remember all the various jobs that she had. One of the strengths that she brings to our show is that she’s had so many various jobs in terms of television producing and reporting. We have a staff of a lot of people who try and make me look good on television, and Emily can really relate to all the people because had those jobs — from being a booker booking guests, to being an associate producer and everything else. I remember when she started, and she was a talented producer, and still is an extremely talented producer, and that’s why she’s the executive producer of The Situation Room.
Why do you think your partnership been so successful over all of these years? What’s the secret, or secrets?
Atkinson: Jumping off of what we just said — I think you truly get to know each other over nearly 20 years of working together in different capacities. You develop a relationship and a comfort with each other that doesn’t come in the span of a couple of years. I think we know each other as well as we do because of this amount of time we work together. We trust each other, we like each other, we can be honest. I can be tough with Wolf, he can be tough with me. That doesn’t come in just a two-year relationship. I think because we’ve worked together so long, that’s what makes the relationship unique.
Blitzer: We really respect each other, our various backgrounds, our expertise. Over these 20 years, we’ve gotten to know each other really well; what she likes and what I like, and how to put together an excellent show. It really pays off when you’re working with people you trust, that you like and that you respect and appreciate. It makes all the difference in the world.
Atkinson: With all of the various shows that come and go, the mission of this show has not changed. I think having worked as deeply in it and for as long as we have helps that relationship.
There are a lot to choose from, but is there a specific broadcast of The Situation Room that stands out to each you?
Blitzer: I’ve been with CNN now for 33 years, and what stands out of my mind was when all of a sudden not that long ago, the Covid pandemic erupted. We had to think of a new way to get the Situation Room on the air every day. I credit Emily for putting together a plan that we didn’t miss one day of the Situation Room. We did it, we did it well every day, and we did it in a way that the viewer wouldn’t even realize that we were making all of these adjustments.
Those days, I was working seven days a week, with the special Situation Rooms on weekends as well. Almost everyone was working from home, they weren’t coming into the [D.C.] bureau because of Covid. If you think Emily had an easy job—getting the whole staff to put together an excellent show while they were in their living rooms, or dining rooms, or kitchens, or wherever—it wasn’t easy. She built a little studio for me to anchor from my home here in the D.C. area, but I have to tell you, I never used it once. I personally felt so much more comfortable coming into the bureau to do my show. We had a flash studio where I was the only one in that room. There were no people in that room other than me. None of the photojournalists were in there, they were all separated. I had no reporters with me, no analysts with me, no guests with me, everybody was remote from wherever they were.
Those days, you didn’t want to be near people, especially if you weren’t wearing a mask. When Emily was in the control room, she would come in and make sure that the show got on air. We didn’t miss a beat. It was an extraordinary time for all of us who are in television journalism, getting a show on-air during the pandemic. I was really proud of the way Emily organized that, she did an amazing job.
Atkinson: I was a new EP. I think I had only gotten the job a few months prior to Covid hitting. I was new at taking over as EP and leading the team. It stands out because we had to figure things out very quickly. Wolf and I had to rely on each other, making sure he and the team had everything they needed when we couldn’t all be in the room together all the time. That feels like a defining moment for myself as well. I don’t think we could have done it without each other. We probably talked 75 times a day. When I’m thinking about it, that’s what stands out.
Blitzer: Normally when you have a show that you’re putting together—in the mornings, in the early afternoon, late afternoon—everybody would meet in the conference room. We’d all sit around a table and lay out our plans to do in each block of the show, and how we were going to do it. But all of a sudden, everybody was doing it from the phone. We had Zoom calls and all of those things. It was a whole new world that we had to improvise, and we didn’t miss a beat. Everybody worked really hard. They were creative, and we got the shows on the air. Again, it was a whole new world for me. All these years at CNN, all of a sudden not seeing anyone but hearing their voices all the time. We adjusted.
What does Emily bring to the The Situation Room EP role that is different from her predecessors? What stands out to you?
Blitzer: What stands out in my mind is she clearly knows what our show, The Situation Room, is all about. She’s worked with me for 20 years so she knows my strengths, she knows my weaknesses and she knows where I’m coming from. She knows our viewers, I think that’s what’s most important. ‘What do the viewers of The Situation Room want?’ They want serious, important hard news that will enlighten them about what’s going on, not only in the United States, but around the world. We do a lot of serious news — foreign policy, economic development and national security. That’s what they expect from me.
When I started at CNN, I was the Pentagon correspondent and the Military Affairs correspondent during the first Gulf War. Then, I was our White House correspondent during the Clinton administration. So, they [our viewers] know me because they’ve seen me over all of these years, and they know what they’re going to get. Emily appreciated that. So, we continue to do what we were told to do at the beginning when we came up with our concept, which is a serious, hard news show. That’s what we’ve been doing ever since, and it’s worked out great.
What I loved about Emily was she brought her own personal experiences to the show to make the show better.
Atkinson: I would like to think that I do that as well, and my own background and experiences that influence the types of stories that we can cover. We talked about Covid. Shortly thereafter, we have this racial reckoning with George Floyd, and all the rest of it.
I just think that bringing a different perspective to the stories we cover, or different ways of producing the stories that we’re covering, or some of the voices we use as part of our coverage. Wolf has its own unique background and I would like to think that I could offer that as well, just a little bit of a different perspective.
Lastly, because the name of this feature is The Producer I Can’t Live Without, Wolf, what is one of the biggest ways that Emily has saved you during your time working together?
Blitzer: She saved me completely during the Covid pandemic. I was probably freaked out about it more than other people. I was very nervous, very conservative. I wanted to make sure anybody got close to me, they were wearing a mask. I don’t think our viewers ever saw me wearing a mask when I was anchoring The Situation Room because I was in a room all by myself —
Atkinson: Do you credit me for not having Covid? (laughter)
Blitzer: I credit Emily. She made it work. I did get Covid more recently, but during the whole pandemic part when we were really, really improvising and freaking out, I never did get Covid.
The pandemic, in those days when it was the top story, most of the show was on Covid. ‘What was going on?’ I thought it was really well done. We had good doctors and good experts who helped us get through it.
Atkinson: I don’t think there’s any one particular moment. But I think, again, just by nature of coming to know each other as long as we have, I sort of have a sixth sense of how Wolf operates and how he thinks. That allows me to kind of be a few steps ahead of the game — whether we’re in a breaking news situation as its unfolding in the control room, or shortly before the show where we have to change things, or if a shot goes down and we lose the guest, or if the reporter goes down. That comes with time. It’s sort of a sixth sense of anticipating what he’s going to need before he needs it and knowing what he’s going to ask for before he asks for it. That is sort of how I see my role.
Blitzer: She knows my passions, my interests, and she’s become familiar with my Buffalo Bills (laughter).
We went to Buffalo long ago to do a profile on one of the Buffalo Bills players, Dion Dawkins, an offensive tackle. He really did amazing things off the field, helping families and helping the victims who survived the Tops supermarket massacre in Buffalo. We profiled him as part of our Profiles in Courage segment.
We spent a few days in Buffalo, and I made a point of taking Emily and our crew around all my various places in Buffalo where I grew up, where I was coming from, and why I love the Buffalo Bills so much; what the community there did for my family and all of that, and why it was so heartbreaking to see some guy drive up to Buffalo from Binghamton, N.Y. and start killing all these people simply because they were Black. Dion Dawkins really did some amazing things. So we hung out with Buffalo Bills, and had a good good experience.
But, Emily and I have really gotten to know each other and we speak every day several times a day. First of all, we start the morning, we do our morning calls to to get a sense of where we’re heading. Then, during the day we’re nonstop either in person or on the phone talking about what’s going on. So, it’s been a great relationship.