Originally published June 16, 1997
This is gonna burst a lot of geek hearts, but Soledad O’Brien, host of MSNBC’s nightly cable TV show “The Site”, is not one of you. And wait, it gets worse: She’s married. Happily.
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. (And they wonder why people are skeptical about TV.)
As it turned out, O’Brien’s easy manner, natural flair for reporting and quick comprehension of ideas really was perfect for “The Site.” It’s a show about the Internet that your mother could understand — and find entertaining. So her lack of hands-on experience was a positive. As “The Site” has grown, so has O’Brien, applying a child’s bright-eyed sense of wonder to a dictionary full of colorful new tech jargon, geekspeak, hardware, software and baffling acronyms.
“I find it interesting,” she says.
But not all of it.
A recent example of technology overkill came from a viewer who asked if there was software that could program a computer to act as a telephone answering machine.
“Buy an answering machine, okay?” she says, laughing. “Why would you want to spend the day trying to find a software program, install it on your computer — it makes no sense to me. And I think that is where I am more aligned with our audience. I don’t necessarily think technology for the sake of technology is a great thing. There are guys who will say, ‘I am trying to get my wife online, and she’s not interested.’ Well, maybe she shouldn’t be online! Not everybody needs to be wired. It’s okay.
“More people I know are online,” she continues, “and they all go through this honeymoon period and then they crash and say, ‘Ugh, this is horrible.’ What we try to get across to our viewers is, it is not like doing surgery. It’s typing, pointing and clicking. If the people who make hardware and software want to attract the mainstream they have to make it easier for people to use. For example, why do I get error numbers when my system crashes? Why doesn’t it just say, ‘Soledad, you need to do this, this and this and then reboot’? If you want to get people like my mother to go out and buy a $2,000 computer, you need to make it easier to use. Windows 95 needs to be a little more intuitive. I can’t tell you how many files I have saved, but then I end up spending an hour searching for where they have been saved.”
“The Site” usually features something happening in society that involves technology, but the high tech is treated as secondary to the human element. O’Brien and her producers work hard at making viewers understand how gadgets, gizmos and software fit into daily life. Or don’t. Here’s a revolutionary point of view: You don’t need all this stuff just because it exists.
“Technology is e-mail, or a Web site,” she says. “But through it, people are able to track down their birth parents. Through it, people who have cancer can get a support group. Our show is about people or how society is changing in a technological age, rather than testing three different modems for the hard-core geeks to see which is faster.”
O’Brien believes the show works best when it makes people care about technology and it seems relevant to them.
“If you are not in the industry, you need to understand why the Communications Decency Act matters to you. My mother would say, ‘Well, I am not even online, why does it matter?’ And I’d say, ‘Mother, it does matter to you, and this is why.’ I am not telling anybody to run out and buy a computer. I couldn’t care less if people ran out and bought a new PC or a new Mac. That is not my problem. I want them to understand how technology is changing their lives.”
One of the ways “The Site” communicates relevance is through a wise-cracking, computer-generated avatar named “Dev.”
“When that segment first started, David Borman, the NBC executive in charge of our show, said, ‘What I envision is you sitting at the coffee bar, talking to a virtual reality character. You will not see him.’ I imagined my career, eight years of hard work climbing the ladder, going crash because I was talking to a random puppet guy.’ But it is probably my favorite segment. The guy who does it is so impromptu and so funny that when I laugh, I am really laughing. We just crack up, and he knows what he is talking about, which makes the segment work. My mother, however, hates Dev. One day she wrote in and said, ‘I like your show okay, but what is the story with that vile little puppet man?’ And now all the viewers call him that.”
Vile Little Puppet Man — reportedly voiced by the show’s tech manager, Leo Laporte — has a wicked cyber tongue, not hesitating to lash out at the golden hand that keeps him plugged in, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
“It’s weird, because we are independently produced by Ziff-Davis (publishers of computer magazines such as MacWeek and PC Week), Microsoft and NBC, and we have absolutely no feedback from Microsoft. None,” O’Brien says. “In fact there have been times that we would like to interview someone from Microsoft and they don’t even respond to us. So we are not in bed with them in any way, shape or form. But there is still the appearance that this is Bill Gates’ channel. Our challenge is just to be journalists. It is easy for me because I am paid by NBC. I have a Macintosh at home which I always talk about, which I love. I really don’t like Windows 95. The folks at Microsoft run the chat room for MSNBC, and there is always a question like, ‘Do you use Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer?’ And I use Netscape like mostly everybody else.”
The show is based in San Francisco, just outside of the world computer capitol, Silicon Valley, because it is convenient and cheap.
“We have a limited budget,” says O’Brien, who grew up in Long Island, NY. “We are a cable show, and it is much easier for us to get all these big-wigs as they are driving by in their Ferraris on their way from a meeting down to their big homes in Mountainview. This is the place where technology is happening and they literally are happy to stop in.”
Because “The Site” is prerecorded several days in advance, O’Brien frequently splits her work week between MSNBC and its parent network, NBC. On days when she is devoted to “The Site,” she arrives at 6:30 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t leave the studio until 7:30 p.m., catching up on her voluminous e-mail. (A fan club is in the works.) Other days, she’ll hit the road and tape segments for “The Site,” such as a charming piece on the retiree who started answering e-mail inquiries at Xerox and before long found himself completely out of retirement as its webmaster. And still other days she’ll hit the road for the weekend edition of “The Today Show,” as she did recently on a Bahamas shark dive.
“They have this theory that since they pay my salary, whenever we are not working at ‘The Site,’ they want to keep me busy,” she explains.
She’s much busier on “The Site” now than she was a month ago, when on any given day the show might be new or it might just as easily be a repeat. Now the plans is to telecast new shows pretty much six days a week for the foreseeable future. It will still be prerecorded, however, taped about four days ahead of air dates.
Enough inside production stuff. Let’s talk geeks, nerds and webmasters — oh, my!
“We have such a weird audience,” O’Brien says, somewhat bemused. “I think MSNBC and NBC wanted to appeal to a mainstream audience. Yet people who are really interested in technology are geeky people, a desirable demographic from the TV standpoint, men who make $80,000 a year or something. We don’t have that many women.
“I get so much e-mail from the geeks, very specific e-mail from them,” she continues. “We get lots of e-mail from young teenagers, 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds. ‘I watch your show and I am thinking of getting a computer…'”
It’s no mistake that MSNBC is promoting the heck out of Soledad O’Brien. At 30 years old, she’s already a well-known quantity at NBC, having first produced stories for “NBC Nightly News” and “Today Show” science correspondent Bob Bazell in 1991. She later worked simultaneously as a science reporter for KRON-TV in San Francisco and as the host of “The Know Zone” for the Discovery Channel.
“I am marketable,” she says. “Bi-racial. Female. Anchoring a technology show. It is not like there are a lot of people like that running around.”
Waitammint. You’re female?
“Yeah,” she says, “now that the operation is over with.”