Soledad O’Brien, The Brand

By Alex Weprin 

For former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” is something of a reunion. A former low level staffer at NBC News, O’Brien recalls producing segments with then “Today” anchor Gumbel.

“I was terrified,” O’Brien tells TVNewser. “[Gumbel] was one of the smartest and best interviewers in the business, and it was kind of an overwhelming prospect to be in his space.”

Now O’Brien will be on-air contributing to Gumbel’s HBO program, widely regarded as one of the best sports journalism programs on television. O’Brien will join a correspondent team that includes Mary Carillo, Bernard Goldberg and Andrea Kramer.

“I will do what I do, interviews, and to really tell stories, more about the human struggle to overcome something, to get through something,” O’Brien says of her “Real Sports” role. “It is longer form, but for me it is often under-told stories about the human condition.”

Her deal with HBO also includes a “first look” clause, giving the pay cabler first dibs on scripted programming and “long-form programming concepts” from O’Brien’s production company Starfish Media Group. HBO is known for taking real stories and turning them into dramatic films, most recently with the critically-acclaimed Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” and also for “Game Change.”

“We have already had people reach out about a number of projects, and we are in the process of working on a number of other projects as well–non-scripted—that we will be announcing soon,” O’Brien says. “There are a lot of folks that have sent us scripts, stories that are interesting to them, but I would like to look at those stories that fly under the radar, that not everyone is covering.”

The HBO deal is particularly important for O’Brien’s production company Starfish, which also  has a first look deal for documentaries at CNN, including the “In America” series.

“[The HBO deal] fits nicely into what I am trying to do at Starfish Media Group, you know, what stories do I want to tell? What platforms do I want to be on? And then continue to figure out who I want to partner with going forward,” O’Brien says, citing theatrical releases and short-form content as areas she also wants to explore.

“What I wanted to explore was the creation of a new model, where if your brand is big enough, you can appear across a number of platforms,” O’Brien added. “Obviously HBO is a huge partner, and an incredible brand name, and [HBO CEO] Richard Plepler has been a good friend to me over the years. I think there are other platforms as well to tell different, great stories on.”