I’m definitely a child of Peter Jennings,” says Michele Mayer, who typed up the legendary anchor’s teleprompter scripts for nine years, before becoming the stage manager in 1999 at ABC World News, where she still runs the studio floor.
“When it comes to the on-air talent, no detail is too small to overlook: the temperature of the studio, their favorite snacks and pens. I have even picked lint off then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s lapel at the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic Debate. I said, ‘I’m going to reach up and touch you so please warn the Secret Service not to shoot me.’”
Mayer’s devil in the details approach is never more tested than during a presidential election year, when the “circus” that is a nightly newscast (of which Mayer calls herself the “ringmaster”) hits the road for debates and conventions.
“Election night in 2000, with the hanging chads, was probably the most memorable,” she continues. “We were on the air into the wee hours of the morning, when one of the lights caught fire over Peter Jennings’ head. I pushed a cameraman out onto the floor with a fire extinguisher.”
Making the right friends is also a resume builder. When then-president George W. Bush arrived at the 2004 Republican National Convention, his Secret Service detail locked down Madison Square Garden—no one in or out, including the outside catering firm bringing food to Mayer’s anchors.
“Because I had given a bunch of hats and T-shirts to the Garden’s catering staff,” she recalls, “they were able to sneak me some leftover sandwich trays so George Will, George Stephanopoulos, Peter, and the crew could eat.”
The 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver was memorable for the epic scope of Obama’s acceptance speech, which was outdoors at what was then Invesco Field in front of 84,000 people. “Our director back in New York had a very short window of time to block out his shots and everyone was coming out onto the platform to take pictures and watch rehearsals. I grabbed the president of ABC News, David Westin, to be a stand-in. My feeling was that if David was going to be out there, he might as well be of some use.”
Mayer is so intent on efficiency, she’s threatened to confiscate Stephanopoulos’ cell phone at the studio door. And occasionally she has even had to put her foot down. “When Diane [Sawyer] took over in 2009, she asked me to sing into her headphones during a commercial break because our studio is so quiet compared to Good Morning America. I said, ‘I’m sorry Diane, but I do not sing to my anchors.’”
This year’s election season will be Sawyer’s first leading ABC World News. Mayer says the anchor’s “relaxed style” is in stark contrast to Jennings, who thickened every crewmember’s skin. “I am much harder on Diane than her other stage managers have been,” Mayer boasts. “Hair and makeup need to be perfect; sitting straight up in the chair with her shirt tucked in.
“I was cutting and pasting Peter’s edits back before we used computers,” she adds. “The stage manager would be yelling out the time [during a commercial break]. So I know exactly how much you can get done in live television in forty-five seconds.”
"I'm proud that I've never crossed the line to ask for photographs or autographs," he concludes. "I think these [celebrities] respect that level of professionalism. They see me and know they're in good hands."