1996-97 The Site

Although 1996 started with Soledad continuing her work in San Francisco, the big event of the year for her career would come that summer.

In July 1996, MSNBC was launched. MSNBC, the joint venture of Microsoft (the MS) and NBC, and one of its initial offerings was the daily show The Site, hosted by Soledad O'Brien.

This hour-long program, based in San Francisco, was devoted to the new Internet revolution. The program brought Soledad a much wider national audience and recognition.
I had a PC when that job came up, but I made it clear in my interview that I was not a technologist. I didn’t do spreadsheets. Andy Lack [then NBC News president] made it clear they wanted The Site geared so someone’s mom would know what we were talking about.

The Site aired Monday through Saturday reaching 35 million homes and was a forerunner to an entire technology channel called ZDTV which later became TechTV.

Her "co-host" on the program was the program's creator, Leo Laporte. Though Laporte was sometimes seen in person, he more often appeared in the guise of a virtual character, Dev Null.

Sometimes billed as "the Net's evening news," the show also brought Soledad Internet fame. Many articles appeared in print and even more online about the program, and Soledad was given some flattering, though perhaps unwelcome, titles like "Goddess of the Geeks." Lloyd Grove in The Washington Post dubbed her "television's first cyberbabe.".

Her message boards at The Site were full of inane commentary, generally no more insightful than geek speculation on topics such as why she so frequently wore black outfits, and whether or not she had a tattoo.

Part of her on-camera banter with Dev Null (Leo Laporte) was comic flirting and part was Laporte filling Soledad in on matters technological.
One of the reasons that that segment of the show worked is that I could not see him as I was talking to him, and the segment was unscripted. He was funny, and his jokes were not gags.

Still, as an admitted newbie about things Internet, and as an Apple Macintosh user, she provided a great go-between for audiences members who were equally new to the Internet world.
Her main duties included introducing the various segments, interviewing guests about software and Web pages and reporting on Net topics. She became appropriately confused when techie guests wandered too far into he land of jargon and voiced a "so what" tone about some of the programs and pages that were technically rich and content poor.

Her days began at 6 AM and often ran to 12+ hours. On weekends, she would catch up on her stuffed email inbox.

She had her own web pages where she gave occasional dispatches on her job - for example, a piece on a shark-diving trip to the Bahamas that was preceded by a 4 day crash diving course.

Soledad also interviewed Tom Brokaw "Anchor 2 Anchor" which foreshadowed her own NBC network anchor duties to come.

"The first time I saw The Site, I fell madly in love with her," says musician Andy Cahan, the keyboardist of the '60s rock group The Turtles. "She's so gorgeous and she's just adorable, but very firm and business like too."

Cahan, who had a lucrative online business doctoring demo tapes for fellow musicians, was featured on one segment and compared the experience of being interviewed by O'Brien to going on the old Ed Sullivan Show. "Everybody watched that show. It was part of the national conversation. The Site is the '90s equivalent."

Clip from the MSNBC program THE SITE circa 1996. Soledad O'Brien
closes out the show and virtual character Dev Null (Leo Laporte)sings
"Happy Together" accompanied by Andy Cahan.

An article on the Netizen website said:
"The Site offers a vehicle for capturing and describing the ways the digital world is transforming culture, community, science, and politics. Its host, Soledad O'Brien, is intelligent, informal, and knowledgeable - the antithesis of the Anchor Monsters who have sucked the life out of most commercial TV newscasts. She manages to be skeptical and direct, but not pompous: "Do I really need to upgrade?" she asked one gee-whiz techie showing off an endless stream of wireless keyboards and giant speakers. "No," he said sadly."

In an April 97 USA TODAY piece, she commented that she received 250 to 300 e-mails a day and that she "... never realized about the Net that you have to interact with people. As a TV reporter, you never have a back-and-forth with people about your stories. But people critique me every day. My mother even sent in e-mail complaining that I was rushing guests."

A piece by Curt Schleier in The Detroit News said:
What likely raised a few eyebrows was that the cable network chose Soledad O'Brien to anchor it. Nothing personal against O'Brien, of course, it's just that some people still view women as technophobes.

"The web is feminizing the entire industry," Soledad replied. "It's a very collaborative medium and women work well collaboratively. It's not just some computer geek sitting alone at his desk. It's people all around the world contributing. More than half the people work on the show's web site are women."

1997 would prove to be a year with many changes for Soledad O'Brien.

She began the year continuing to host MSNBC's The Site. The program and Soledad continued to receive good press.

In an article from the online SALON Magazine (January 24, 1997), the author admited to being more fascinated with Soledad than with the show.
The secret of Soledad's success is that she's offered the true geeks generous terms of surrender. While pretending to no great technical knowledge herself, she treats techheads with a certain respect (though not reverence); she cajoles them into opening up, and reins them in when they begin to babble. The Site allows geeks (and the somewhat geeky) to present their best face to the world.

Mr. Media interviewed Soledad O'Brien:
O'Brien, the cyber-dream date of a generation of guys living in the basement of the science building, may give the impression she's been surfing the Web for years, but the truth is that before she got the job, it was all Greek Geek to her.

"I sort of raised that point quite gingerly when I had my interview with NBC," she admits. "I was sort of like, 'I don't know if you read my resume, but I really am not all that familiar with technology.' "

She hadn't been online at all, let alone being able to know the difference between Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer.

"On a scale of one to 10, technology-wise," she says, "I was probably a two, maybe a three on a good day."

Naturally, the show's producers said, great, that's what we are looking for. As it turned out, O'Brien's easy manner, natural flair for reporting and quick comprehension of ideas really was perfect for "The Site."

Imaging America hosts: Soledad, Randall Pinkston, Jed Duvall.

In April 1997, she also worked on a series for PBS / WNET (New York) called Imaging America, a national news magazine that took an hour-long tour of one city which "serves as a microcosm of issues that resonate across the country. Cities selected for the first segments were Portland, Oregon; Phoenix, Arizona; and Salisbury, Maryland.

The series utilized digital video cameras for most of its pieces. "With the latest broadcast-quality digital technology, our producers can effectively be one-man bands. shooting and editing their own stories," says Tamara E. Robinson, Vice President and Director of Programming for Thirteen/WNET. "This approach is cost-effective, and allows us to get up close and personal with people and their stories."

I loved doing this type of show. It was a very interesting look at a city, researched in depth, and told in a very compelling style. I like covering hard news. I think technology fits that description, and this show does as well. I like having a full hour to tell a story, and also not intruding into the story as a journalist. The people in this show tell the story of Phoenix themselves. I'm just there to ask questions and connect the dots.

The Site, since its debut in July '96, had won two Emmy awards and was named best overall TV program by the Computer Press Assn.

But, MSNBC viewed the show as "news" but not hard news, and it became an odd fit in their now 24-hour cable channel programming.

With MSNBC's expanding all-news format and Ziff-Davis' recently launched 24-hour channel on computing and the Internet, The Site was between two worlds.

In late summer, as the San Francisco offices were being expanded, a joint announcement from ZD and MSNBC said the partnership between NBC and Microsoft would look for "other programming arrangements" with ZD and ZDTV in tech news coverage.

The show had been airing on MSNBC 7-8 pm EDT as a daily news program.

Some reports have it that the extensive news coverage of Princess Diana's death (August 31), including full-press reports on MSNBC, not only pushed up the channel's ratings, but pre-empted The Site and eventually pushed it off the schedule.

When the show was canceled in September, Soledad said she was:
"Surprised! I was disappointed. I pretty much stayed in bed for a week, because I didn't have to go into work.

Weirdly enough, I was on vacation. And, then the second week I started, you know, sort of making myself go to the gym, and snap out of it.

And, by the end of the second week I was back in New York starting to work for NBC again. Since I was employed by NBC it wasn't as if I was going to be out in the street destitute, or something. It was just that my assignment was going to change, and I had two weeks off before I knew what my new assignment was going to be.

I knew it was going to be with NBC in some capacity, it was just, what is it going to be?

And, for the people who worked for Ziff-Davis Television they had this 24-hour channel coming on-line. Which was incredible because there was this opportunity for jobs. I mean, for people who are not in television, when you're canceled, you lose your job. You can't pay your mortgage, you can't pay your car payment, things like that. So to have Ziff-Davis have this 24-hour channel where everybody, with few exceptions, was offered a job on the channel. It was unbelievable. They went to work the next day."

Soledad was still under contract to NBC and in a move that would bring her to New York (where her husband was based), she became a substitute anchor on that network's The News With Brian Williams and worked on its Weekend Today Show.

This email from Soledad was posted on a fan website at that time.
"I just wanted to say hello and thank each and every one of you for tuning in to “The Site” this past year. Much of what made my experience so great was the interaction I had with you. All-in-all, I had a wonderful time working on the show, becoming an expert on technology, and most importantly, creating our Internet community through our great e-mails, chats, newsroom conversations, and even conventional ol’ snail-mail.

As you know, our show was canceled in September and while I miss all of my colleagues in San Francisco and regularly covering the technology beat, NBC has me off and running on a variety of new and exciting projects.

I was recently named an NBC News correspondent and MSNBC anchor. Which is to say, that I will be a general news reporter for “Nightly News,” “Dateline,” and substitute anchor for both weekend “Nightly News” and weekend “Today.” Also, you can catch me every Saturday and Sunday on MSNBC’s weekend show, “Morning Blend,” from 9:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. ET. “Morning Blend” is a talk/interview show that takes a look at the week that was and the week that will be through topical news, including entertainment, fashion, world news and a little coffee talk to spice things up.

I hope you will tune in to MSNBC’s “Morning Blend” on the weekends and of course to continue sending me your comments and suggestions."

Soledad was the recipient of the 1997 Hispanic Achievement Award in Communications.