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The Insider: O’Hearn Shifts Focus to ‘Center of the Universe’

Jul 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

InsiderLast Thursday night, some FOKO, as The Insider refers to the many Friends of Kathy O’Hearn, took the outgoing executive producer of “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” to dinner and offered ideas of thing to do with her weekends.
Saturdays and Sundays will not be dictated by work once she begins her reassignment to the ABC News special events team that will be busy planning and producing the presidential nominating conventions and elections coverage.
Ms. O’Hearn is hard-working, energetic and big-hearted. She’s had a fascinating career, starting as a studio technician at NBC and moving to CBS as a sound tech, who then became a shooter traveling the country and the world for three years.
She first joined ABC News in 1983 as assignment editor in the D.C. bureau. She was Los Angeles bureau chief during the tumultuous years that included the Rodney King trial, the L.A. riots, Malibu fires and Northridge earthquake, and, oh, yes, the O.J. Simpson trial.
The Insider first met Ms. O’Hearn, and became a FOKO, when she moved to New York in 1996 to become executive producer of weekend editions of “World News Tonight.” Four years later, she moved to CNN as executive VP of business news and CNNfn, and then executive producer of “American Morning.” After a stint as executive producer of CNBC’s “Topic A With Tina Brown,” Ms. O’Hearn returned to ABC News and to Washington in 2005 to produce “This Week.”
The accolades she’s earned along the way include five Emmys, three Edward R. Murrow Awards and a Peabody Award.
The Insider talked with Ms. O’Hearn last week.
The Insider: After three years as executive producer of “This Week,” you’re joining the ABC News special events team that will produce coverage of the nominating conventions and the elections in November, among other assignments. What most excites you about the new assignment?
Ms. O’Hearn: For me, attending the conventions and running the coverage of the conventions. It’s a historic year. I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting. I had called months ago and offered my services to [special events executive producer] Marc Burstein and [executive VP] Dave Davis. I offered my services to anyone and everyone beyond producing the show to be involved in the convention.
The Insider: Had you been to conventions before?
Ms. O’Hearn: Not in a long time. I went with Tina Brown to Boston in 2004—we did a luncheon for CNBC—but the last time I went and covered and worked at a convention was 1988 in New Orleans, and then before that in 1984 in San Francisco. There’s seriously nothing more thrilling. It’s the center of the universe for four days.
The Insider: Your resume is literally all over the map. What drives you? And how will you know when you get there?
Ms. O’Hearn: What drives me is a passion for storytelling in a visceral, magnetic way that draws people in, where I can capture the excitement and baseline of a story, moments that matter. There’s nothing more gratifying. That’s what drives me. I love producing television. I absolutely, positively love it. It involves so many layers of skills. The written word, the narrative picture to story, the research behind it, the organization of setting up a remote, the technical aspects of it. I love the whole package.
The Insider: Is there any job you haven’t done that you’d still like a shot at?
Ms. O’Hearn: I would like to, and I did a bit of this at CNNfn, take a creative endeavor that is new and fresh and is a whole package. Taking control of a whole new production endeavor, where I could put my stamp on it, my sensibility on it. One of the things I feel most passionately about is being able to provide a “take” on something. I like running things. I like fixing things. I like building things. Something like a network that has a particular sensibility. It has so many little details, everything from empowering the staff to worrying about the graphic look to making sure the mission statement is spread wide with delight instead of a heavy hand. Building that fire. Stoking it. Building a bonfire that takes off is gratifying. I would love to create and build and make a smashing success out of my own shop.
The Insider: Since you rejoined ABC News as executive producer of “This Week,” the show has gained ratings and established itself as a consistent second to NBC’s “Meet the Press.” To what do you attribute the growth?
Ms. O’Hearn: It was a number of things. George has hit his stride. It is mostly George. He is comfortable and works harder than anyone I know. But it was also putting together a staff that is his. It’s an amazingly talented, passionate, committed, funny, bright, entertaining staff. I just love my staff. It was updating the production, literally everything from protocols and systems—there were none in place when I got there, because they split the staff in between “Nightline” and “This Week.” He had rotating researchers and rotating producers. George felt no ownership. I think that sense of giving him his own show, letting him be that central organizing principal, was the dynamic that changed the trajectory of the show. It came up to meet his growth and sophistication as a broadcaster. He already has a political reach, of course. The alchemy of my organization and producing skills and his brilliance as a reporting political anchor was the right mix.
The Insider: What competitive opportunities are to be had among Sunday newsmaker shows in the absence of Tim Russert?
Ms. O’Hearn: I think it’s an interesting time to not throw out the rule book but break a couple of the rules and try some different things. Tim was such a strong No. 1 in terms of the ratings that he set the standards. Now it’s kind of all bets are off. You can get in there and possibly play with format, although in a way I have to say the viewers are looking for one, simple, straightforward thing. I think it’s a little more about who is going to establish themselves. In the end it’s about who are people going to turn to as their reliable source for political news and for digging through the weeds of policy to keep us informed.
The Insider: You once described “This Week” as the most modern of the newsmaker shows. With a political landscape that has become increasingly cacophonous, what makes a newsmaker show most relevant and most successful now?
Ms. O’Hearn: I do think “This Week” is poised to only continue to grow in the ratings because it has a broader embrace of the political conversation. There’s an awareness that people get their political news from the late-night talk and comedy shows, so we offer that. We also offer a sense of the major passings of the week, which obviously run toward the political side. The show also has a little more heat because our open is highly produced, mapping what we’re going to talk to everybody about. It just has a little more evolved sense of the political conversation. That’s the modern part. It’s understanding how and where people get their news and paying respect to that.
The Insider: “This Week” moved into a hi-def studio at the Newseum. How has that changed the dynamics of the show?
Ms. O’Hearn: It has made the show more vibrant and alive because it is in a living place with people walking through it. During the show I hear him on his microphone going, “Oh, hi. How are you?” so it’s just got that vitality of a living place. It just feels like we are more in D.C. Being at the base of the Capitol it’s very clear we’re right here in the heart of the nation’s capital. It has a vibrance and an immediacy and this kind of grandeur. It feels bigger and it feels more alive.
The Insider: Was there anything that didn’t go exactly as you thought it would in the move?
Ms. O’Hearn: The whole thing was more of a challenge than we thought. The lighting has to be adjusted throughout the show because the sun changes or goes behind a cloud or something. All the work involved, that was all Roger Goodman. We brought in the Disney Imagineers. They did all the neutral density filters on the windows and the polarizing filters on the cameras. They have to be adjusted throughout the show, all morning long. We spent a lot more time on that then we ever did in the indoor studio, where you have so much more control: You set the lights, fine-tune them, you don’t touch them. The transition to HD was an exciting learning challenge, to figure out how to fill the screen differently. You need to shoot it for both [standard definition] homes and HD homes, and all the equipment is different. We went to HD school, flew up to New York and looked at “Good Morning America,” organized classes in graphics, because the graphics are created differently. It’s very complicated. You squeeze them down and they travel down the line and pop back out. I now feel like I really understand it, but initially it made my head hurt.
The Insider: Have any of the guests evinced any fear at all about being in hi-def?
Ms. O’Hearn: We send out a sheet to each guest to say we’re now in high definition, these are the colors of the set. We do use a different makeup. We have a fantastic makeup artist and she has refined the makeup because it has to be a lighter, more even thing. It has a little more emollient in it. It’s more natural instead of cakey. She sometimes uses the spray gun. It depends on the person. One thing ABC has always been known for is understanding how to make a picture look better. We’re more aware with every single person. Joe Lieberman looked great and McCain looked great. People look good. That’s also the lighting. Ted Wellf, who came in to design the lighting, and Chris Williamson, who now oversees it every week, are amazing artists with lighting. It was interesting how simple we ended up making the set because the background was so dramatic, but also because the simpler the better in HD. You don’t need to busy it up.
The Insider: What has been the most memorable moment or aspect of the past three years?
Ms. O’Hearn: The debates in Des Moines. I had never produced a debate in my life. I did not have a day off all summer last year because we put those debates on in July and August. It was a fascinating and demanding process starting out with [political director] David Chalian in April going to five locations in Des Moines to putting those babies on the air, to the ground rules with every single campaign. You had to tell them how high the lectern was, where the water glass would be, on the small shelf in front of you we will have a fine-tipped Sharpie and a 6-by-9 pad. That’s what you had to do. It was just wild. They were, for us, quite successful.
The Insider: You may not have many weekends off for the next few months, but what will you do with the Saturdays and Sundays you do have free?
Ms. O’Hearn: Hopefully sleep in and walk my dog and sit in the park and read the paper, and have friends over for dinner and not feel like, “Oh, it’s Saturday night and I can’t.” I’m really looking forward to it.

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