MSNBC At 10: Remembering “The Site”

By Brian 

thesitejuly14.jpgDo you remember The Site?

It lasted just 13 months in MSNBC’s primetime lineup. But invariably, cable news veterans remember the award-winning nightly technology program.

“To this day, people stop me and say ‘I remember that show you did!,'” The Site host Soledad O’Brien recalled to TVNewser. “I can’t believe it’s been 10 years.”

O’Brien, now a co-host of CNN’s American Morning, still has a soft spot in her heart for The Site.

“Our theory was that we were going to be the first nightly newscast covering the digital revolution,” she said.

Really fun, really scary

Shortly after NBC and Microsoft announced the formation of MSNBC, Ziff Davis offered a proposal for a show about technology. NBC News president Andy Lack directed executive producer of specials David Bohrman (now of CNN) to meet with ZD.

“The net result was, I ended up spending about three months in California really helping whip the show into creation,” he said.

A big abandoned soundstage on Townsend Street in San Francisco was transformed into a TV studio complete with a fully functional espresso bar. Bohrman’s breakfast meeting with O’Brien, then the Oakland bureau chief for KRON, led to her hosting gig.

Bohrman became the executive in charge of the show. A frantic few days led up to the premiere on July 15, 1996. With two or three days before air, “we had no control room,” O’Brien recalled. “It was in boxes. It had been delivered, but there was no control room. But David… was on the floor connecting cables and creating a control room for us.”

She sums up the experience this way: “It was really fun and really scary at the same time.”

The Site was a start-up in a community of start-ups as the World Wide Web began to take off.

Covering a “big change in the world”

“I remember wondering…how we were going to pull this off,” O’Brien said. “Did we have enough material to do this? Every single night for an hour? I think we were a little surprised when we did.”

The show covered subjects like Web design, gaming, and Silicon Valley. It reviewed Web sites and included commentaries from a tech-wary Berkeley professor, among other segments.

“Our goal was to talk about the sociological implications — what does this big change in the world mean to us?,” O’Brien said.

“The show was the perfect program for MSNBC,” Bohrman added. “It was the mix of whatever the Web was going to be and the technology was going to be.”

The Site symbolized an early attempt to marry television and the Web. The show would frequently refer to its Web site for more information.

Lack told O’Brien she should try to be “the viewer, and ask intelligent questions about technology.”

thesitejuly142.jpgTalking to Dev

She posed those questions to Dev. The Site also featured what was the first — and probably still is the first only — computer-generated character on cable news.

An avatar named Dev Null interacted with O’Brien and answered technology questions submitted by viewers.

Leo LaPorte “was the guy in the suit,” O’Brien explained.

The technology of Dev himself was brand-new. LaPorte wore a motion suit that could sense his body movement. A computer program translated the movement and created the character. The control room then placed O’Brien and Dev on the same set using a switcher.

“This feels career-ending to me,” O’Brien would remark to Bohrman as she stared at a piece of tape on the wall that marked Dev’s virtual position. But somehow, it worked: “She would do real-time Q&A with this cartoon character who was the smartest person in the world when it came to technology issues,” Bohrman said. “It was great.”

“I really loved it”

It didn’t last for long. When Princess Diana died on August 31, 1997, The Site was replaced by live news updates. MSNBC’s ratings skyrocketed as viewers tuned to cable for news about Di. It was the first, but not the last, time that MSNBC changed formats following a breaking news event.

O’Brien said she was “heartbroken” when the show was cancelled. “I really loved it,” she said.

She wasn’t alone. Ratings for The Site never went through the roof, but it had a clear community of fans. O’Brien said she received a lot of prom invitations from 15-year-old boys.

“It made a difference in the culture, honestly,” she said. “I know that sounds grandiose and maybe even a little obnoxious. But every person I meet, they want to talk about it.”