Behind the TV Scenes: Kathy O’Hearn

By Jordan Chariton 

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This summer, we’re putting a spotlight on the industry’s top producers; getting the inside story about their shows, how they got to where they are, and advice they have for future TV journalists.

KOHThis WeekCRHeading toward her fourth decade in TV news, Kathy O’Hearn embraced a new challenge this year when she joined MSNBC as executive producer to 26-year-old Ronan Farrow’s new show. “We just hit it off immediately,” O’Hearn tells TVNewser. “It was one one of those great moments that you get only a couple times in your career when you really connect with the way someone thinks and how they think.” O’Hearn’s career has included many big moments and stories at CBS News, ABC News, CNN, CNBC, The Daily Beast, and now, MSNBC.

TVNewser: You started in TV news in the mid 70’s. What’s the biggest thing about the industry that’s changed and how have you adapted?

O’Hearn: The thing that I think is the most pronounced change is how all the cable networks have become bigger players. I started back when CNN had to fight to even get in the White House coverage pool [when I was at CBS]. And to watch how the cable networks are really powerful in terms of who they influence, who watches them, and the amount of news that they bring to the American public is a fascinating arc to experience.

TVNewser: You temporarily left the TV news business in 2010 to go digital as head of video at The Daily Beast. As a TV news lifer, how did you adapt to digital?

O’Hearn: It was fascinating. I was lucky enough to work with a very impressive, savvy group of writers and minds in any kind of newsroom and Tina Brown. To take the skill-set I learned in the television world into the digital side was exciting. I learned a lot; I had done a fair amount of digital production for ABC (“The Greenroom,” “Topline”), so it was exciting to try and figure out how to translate that across a series of programs and products and how to craft it so that it’s successful and reflects the brand. It was like going to school in online video.

TVNewser: Was there a learning curve?

O’Hearn: Absolutely. There was this interesting shift away from everything being short and offering both [short and long-form]. There was also this hunger for real substance, for smart content online, where I think there still is a void. I think it’s still a white space in terms of creating the right product for news online in terms of video. Someone still needs to land on it I’m afraid. I think we got close in a couple ways with our op-ed videos and really fun convention coverage that got a lot of notice and was a little crazy but also powerfully smart with a sense of humor to it. That was all part of that learning curve. It was just so damn different. As in any shift in a career, there were things that were better in the sense that I had more control. It was my little baby, it was a sandbox where I can really play and create things from scratch. And there were things that were really frustrating. Television is such a collaborative force. Television takes a village; you need everyone on your team and part of being a good TV producer is building a strong team and making everyone feel empowered to bring it to the end result. You get a lot of support that way, where as in digital, everyone is kind of out there with their camera putting something together quickly. The thing I missed was the depth of support I had from TV. You know, there’s a producer on it, a correspondent on it, often a researcher involved. That kind of staffing just was not the case in a digital environment and couldn’t be financially. It’s trying to figure out how do you make that all work and keep the journalistic standards high as well as deal with the realities of the tools you’re given and the constraints you’re under.

TVNewser: You’ve covered many big news events, from 9/11 to presidential debates. Any in particular stand out for you?

O’Hearn: I would say producing two presidential debates in 2007 was a real high point for me. We did them for “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” as one of the Sunday shows. It was exciting because it was still a very broad field. It was a very exciting opportunity to do something that very few people in this business get to do. It takes months of meeting with the RNC and DNC and going through what lead pencil are you going to put on the table and where’s the bottle of water going to be. It was just a fascinating experience because I had never done anything like that before. I was also at CNN on 9/11. I produced the morning coverage after 9/11 and that was the kind of story that shakes you to your core. It’s an emotional story that affects Americans, New Yorkers, and as a television journalist, you’re in the middle of a story that’s also tugging at your heart in a way that is hard to let go of. And also the [1992] LA riots when I was the LA bureau chief at ABC News was a really pivotal point in my career. I’ve been lucky enough to be at the helm of a lot of fascinating stories in our history.

TVNewser: Today, you’re in kind of a rare TV news situation, serving as an EP for the youngest cable news host. What’s been the dynamic coming in as a TV news veteran shepherding along a novice?

O’Hearn: I always followed Ronan’s career through the State Department and read his Wall Street Journal op-eds. I was just intrigued by his intelligence and charm. When we first spoke, we just hit it off immediately. It was one one of those great moments that you get only a couple times in your career when you really connect with the way someone thinks and how they think. We really found ourselves intrigued by the same kind of stories and the vantage point of what matters about journalism and also the need for a new type of news program that actively engages the viewer. It’s a real interesting moment in our industry where I think we need to keep creating the next new thing. And the opportunity to do that with someone of Ronan’s capacity and breadth was exciting. He’s just a fabulously funny and smart guy, and it’s also a lot of fun being around him.


TVNewser: What’s your advice for people trying to break into TV news?

O’Hearn: To be open and openhearted about learning and to believe in this profession as a higher calling. I believe it is. To have a fierce commitment to the highest standards of journalism and to marry that to a love of impassioned storytelling. If you love to tell a story and have a fire in your belly about what makes things tick and trying to understand how the world works, you’re a born journalist. And to follow your heart on these stories, to stand back up when you get knocked down, and to keep at it. It’s an enormously rewarding profession.

TVNewser: All the spotlight goes to the anchors you’ve produced for. What should we know about you outside of the business?

O’Hearn: I’m a lover of good network and cable dramas (Scandal, Homeland, Orange Is the New Black, The Good Wife, Masters of Sex). I am blessed with a lot of good friends and like to spend as much time with them as I can. I’m a fantastic dog mama; I have the most attractive dog in all of New York, Ellie. I spend a lot of time in the park with my dog. God bless her for being around. I love to cook, I’m an avid skier, although I had a knee operation so I have to figure out when I get back in to that.