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Harpo executive producer credits time at IUP for his success

04/15/2014
Molly VanWoert
Lead News Writer

Jonathan Sinclair, a 1990 graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, works with Oprah Winfrey as the executive vice president and executive producer at Harpo Studios.

Harpo Studios is the Chicago-based television production studio of Harpo Productions Inc., a production company founded by Oprah.

At the Laurel Highlands Communications Conference Friday held at IUP, he said he credits his success to his education at IUP and the time he spent working at IUP-TV.

“In every class,” he said, “it showed me and gave me the base knowledge to be able to do things like pay attention to detail and be able to write a good story with a beginning, middle and end.”

Working at the television station helped to work out the kinks and acted as a great learning experience on what works and what doesn’t, he said.

Ten IUP faculty members and 32 students also spoke at the conference hosted by IUP’s communications media department in the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex Thursday and Friday.

The LHCC was open to students, faculty and professionals and featured presentations on topics related to communications media, as well as poster sessions and a media showcase, according to the conference website.

Sinclair, the keynote speaker at this year’s LHCC and a recipient of IUP’s Distinguished Alumni Award, focused his speech on tricks and secrets on how to produce a successful television show, along with some of his personal experience in the workforce.

“Harpo is Oprah backwards. Yes, I work for Oprah; yes, she is delightful,” Sinclair said to begin his speech.

It is one thing to know the mechanics of productions, but beyond the technical aspect of it, there is another level where the real “sweet spot of success” lies, Sinclair said.

“It all starts with ideas,” he said. “Ideas are everything.”

Sinclair has recently worked on productions including the Emmy Award-winning interactive series “Oprah’s Lifeclass,” the Emmy Award-nominated series “Oprah Presents Master Class,” and the reality series “Iyanla: Fix My Life,” according to the LHCC website.

Sinclair was also involved in developing “The Dr. Oz Show,” “The Nate Berkus Show,” “Oprah’s Big Give,” “The Oprah Winfrey Oscar Special” and “Christmas at the White House.”

Sinclair said the original pitch for “Oprah Presents Master Class” involved celebrities standing in front of an audience in an auditorium for a Q&A.

When the idea was pitched to Oprah, he said, she felt that it was too complicated and was missing the core of what her vision for the show was.

“What we ended up with was, ‘Let’s put the expert in front of a backdrop, interview them for two hours and cut it down,’” he said.

This idea took off because it was very simple and straight to the point when it came to Oprah’s vision for the show, he said.

“What you don’t normally see is the preproduction,” Sinclair said. “Something I learned early on in my career is panic early and often.”

The seeds of the producer’s vision must be planted in the talent’s mind during each interaction in order to produce a successful show, Sinclair said.

He said it’s important not to get too caught up in creating the perfect atmosphere for an interview that you lose the attention of your talent.

Hours can be spent on trying to perfectly light the potted plant in the corner or making sure the drapes match the carpet, he said. Meanwhile, the talent has been waiting in their trailer and is no longer as eager to give an interview.

“If the person doesn’t say what we need them to say in the way that we need them to say it, nobody cares about the plant,” he said.

Viewers are not emotionally affected by the arrangement of an interview room, he said. What sticks with the viewers is what was said in that interview.

“If you can focus on one thing,” Sinclair said, “make it your ability to hone the feelings in your gut. Your gut will always tell you if you’re in a situation where you’re forcing something or something is off, or something is bad, or something is good. Your gut will always tell you.”

Production decisions should not be made for the money or for the ratings, he said.

“Don’t ever lose the soul that goes into producing,” he said.

Sinclair spoke about the rapid changes that can happen during production that cause plans to change.

“Don’t be so locked into a plan that you miss a great moment,” he said.

Make sure to cover all of the bases, and do all of the necessary preparation work, Sinclair said. The only way to be prepared for the unexpected is to do all of the extra work before filming begins.

“Viewers don’t have the luxury of seeing what you wanted to produce; they only see what you did,” he said.

In addition to representatives from IUP, 42 students and faculty members from other colleges also presented at the conference.

The conference was made up of 44 presentations, including a round table discussion with Sinclair.

Non-IUP presenters came from 13 colleges and universities, including Robert Morris University, Slippery Rock University, California University of Pennsylvania, Gannon University, Millersville University, Washington & Jefferson College, New Jersey City University, Waynesburg University, Kutztown University, Edinboro University, Ferrum College, King’s College and Bloomsburg University.

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