This is an exciting time for Jonathan Sinclair and other members of Harpo Productions, Inc.’s television development department. Sinclair, the supervising producer, divides his time between preparing for the fall 2009 launch of a new daily show for renowned heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, better known as Dr. Oz, health expert for The Oprah Winfrey Show, and developing original shows for syndication, prime time, and the forthcoming cable channel OWN.
The Oprah Winfrey Network is a joint venture between Harpo and Discovery Communications, expected to launch in early 2010. Sinclair’s job at Harpo (“Oprah” spelled backwards) has involved pitching ideas to some of the biggest names in show business, traveling the country on the production of a reality television series, and—maybe most significantly—impacting what the American public watches on television. Yet, ask him what questions he fields most about his job: “How can I get tickets to see the show?” or “What is Oprah really like?”
On a trip to Mexico over the Christmas holidays, Jonathan Sinclair ’90 is shown in the back row with his mother, June Starkey Sinclair ’64, M’76, and father, John Sinclair ’63, M’68. In front are Jonathan's sons, Truman and Maxwell, and his wife, Meredith ’91.
Such is the life of those who work for one of the world’s most successful entertainers. (Winfrey is host of the highest-rated talk show in television history, with an estimated 48 million viewers each week, and is only the third woman—behind Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball—to own her own production studio, now a sprawling campus on Chicago’s West Side.)
But, Sinclair doesn’t mind his lack of limelight; he has made a career of not only promoting the personality, concepts, and philosophy that brought Winfrey to fame, but finding ways to apply them to new projects—beyond the show that has been the cornerstone of her career for twenty-three years.
Sinclair joined Harpo in 1996 after answering a blind ad in a trade magazine. Graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1990 with a degree in Communications Media, he did an internship and freelance work at a TV station in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area before landing jobs at stations in Atlantic City, N.J., then Dayton, Ohio. He worked mainly in news promotion, though he also made local commercials and was pulled into other projects, such as a children’s stranger-danger program that earned him an International Association of Business Communicators’ IRIS Award in the early 1990s.
Sinclair was working at WTAE-TV, Channel 4, in Pittsburgh when he decided to leave news promotion. Searching the help-wanted ads in trade magazines, he came across a posting for a promotions producer at an unidentified talk show. After the routine sending of his résumé and tape, he “basically forgot about it” until a call came from The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“When I came out to interview and met the people face to face, we really connected right away,” he said. “We hit it off as people, and creatively everything was in line. It was just a right fit.”
Some of Jonathan Sinclair's Memories From His Years With Harpo Productions, Inc.:
“One of the more poignant memories was the day Nelson Mandela came to do the show, and, as a surprise to the staff, [Oprah Winfrey] called us all down to the hallway by the studio as Mr. Mandela left the building. It was an awesome moment to be standing there next to him, a living legend, someone with incredible strength and humility. As he walked down the hall, he greeted the staff, and it was truly incredible.”
“Doing promos for the show and working with the daily show—making feeds and the constant deadlines and pressure—was truly an unforgettable experience. To think that you were a part of creating something that went out to the country and people would react to it, well, it just made you feel that you were doing something important. No one here takes that responsibility lightly.…It’s hard work, but it’s gratifying.”
That right fit resulted in ten years with the show’s promotions department. For episodes he was assigned to promote, Sinclair would sit in on the taping, watching for sound bites and determining how best to attract viewers. After his script was approved,Winfrey would read it for taping, and Sinclair would spend a day or more producing the thirty-second promo. Once approved, the promo was fed via satellite to all stations that air The Oprah Winfrey Show—about two hundred in the United States alone. Completing one spot may take up to a week, he said, which gives an idea of the importance placed on promotions.
“It creates some sort of desire, some sort of tune-in,” he said. “It’s basically your call to action. You could affect the rating number with a great promo.”
Sinclair headed the promotions department for three years, including when Winfrey gave a Pontiac to each audience member during a show in 2004.When she started the development group in 2006, Sinclair was asked to join. In news reports,Winfrey said the newly formed group would use the show’s platform to develop additional projects and talents beyond the talk show.
Within three months, the development group was tackling its first major project, a prime-time Oscar special for ABC. It featured Academy Award winners interviewing other Academy Award winners: Julia Roberts and George Clooney, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, and Jamie Foxx and Sidney Poitier. Then came Harpo’s The Big Give, which aired in spring 2008. The reality series was based on an episode of the Oprah show in which every audience member was given a thousand dollars to use for someone else.
“There’s no better laboratory, incubator, or platform for ideas than the team at Harpo and The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Sinclair said. “We tap into everyone’s creativity and the show itself and glean ideas that we think would make great TV—for syndication, cable, prime-time broadcast series or specials, even webcasts. That is essentially what we do.”
Each episode of The Big Give involved a challenge in which contestants were given a certain amount of money and parameters for giving it away.
The Harpo television development department worked with The Amazing Race production team, traveling coast to coast for more than forty days of filming. A favorite moment, Sinclair said, was when a contestant went to a Miami auto repair shop and paid every customer’s outstanding repair bill, totaling about $10,000.
The top-rated series—which, in the final episode, surprised the winner with a million-dollar prize, half of it to be given away—sparked an ABC affiliate contest in some local markets. “A movement was started,” Sinclair said. “It was fun to watch.”
For its current projects, the development team drew once again from the “great incubator” of ideas. Now in the late stages of preparing for the Dr. Oz show, the development group borrowed from what Dr. Oz did best on Oprah to create a platform for the new show. The group’s current role in OWN involves supplying a handful of original series. According to Sinclair, the challenge lies in coming up with shows that entertain, enlighten, and—what he considers the Winfrey philosophy—“empower people to live their best lives.”
“People think that means serious or heavy, but you can live your best life and have fun while doing it. You can live your best life and cook; you can live your best life and decorate your house.…That’s what she’s about, and we’re trying to capture that with any project she puts her name on.”
While more than twenty years of The Oprah Winfrey Show offers plenty of material, Sinclair said he also bases decisions about what viewers will want to watch on “experience and what you feel in your gut.”
It’s a sense he began developing—with less experience and more gut—during his days at IUP, when he produced a half-hour magazine show called Evenings for WIUP-TV. Sinclair, who grew up in Indiana, and his crew would show up with a camera at local spots he found interesting. The footage they gathered—with sites ranging from the old Indiana County courthouse to turkey and pig farms—was the basis of each show.
Among the hosts was Elementary Education major Meredith Berringer, Sinclair’s girlfriend at the time and now his wife. Her on-air experience has not gone untapped; Meredith Sinclair, a 1991 IUP graduate, now provides child-rearing tips and activity ideas during guest spots on CBS 2 Chicago News and through freelance writing. The Sinclairs make their home in Wilmette, about fifteen miles north of the Harpo campus, with sons Maxwell, 11, and Truman, 7.
In addition to indulging his natural curiosity, Jon Sinclair’s experience in college television helped him to find his right fit within the communications field, he said. “For me, it was a good way to find a story, tell the story, and get inside of it in a way I hadn’t figured out how to do in the other mediums.”
And, of course, that discovery is what led to his spending the last thirteen years with Harpo…which begs the question, “What is Winfrey really like?”
According to Sinclair, her viewers already know. “What you see on television is truly who she is.…She’s a unique and fascinating human being, and I don’t think there’s a time you’re with her that you don’t get struck by that.”