'The Revolution Begins Here': MSNBC's First Broadcast, July 1996

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The network's first day of news reporting involved Boris Yeltsin and Bob Dole.

Late yesterday, news broke that NBC and Microsoft would be parting ways. The erstwhile MSNBC.com now redirects to NBCNews.com -- a transition that signifies, The New York Times's Brian Stelter writes, "the end of a relationship between NBC and Microsoft that dates back to the earliest days of the commercial Web."

The separation has been a long time coming. And it makes sense: The partnership between the tech company and the news network, launched exactly sixteen years ago yesterday, has long been a source of brand confusion more than it's been one of brand cooperation. Every cable channel has a website -- and the innovative union, network + Internet, may simply have been ahead of its time. Early next year, MSNBC.com will re-emerge -- this time, as a stand-alone site for the cable channel MSNBC.

Still, the break-up marks, in a very real sense, the end of an era. When the MS/NBC merger was announced in late 1995, it represented "the blurring of lines between the computer industry and the media," a Baltimore Sun article put it. As Broadcast News Network Steve Rosenbaum noted at the time, "There's going to be some kind of marriage between television and computers, and here is the logical place to do it."

Some kind of marriage. That sense of simultaneous confusion and inevitability -- this is the future, let's figure it out -- permeates the first broadcast of MSNBC, the cable channel. The new network assumed that its television/Internet union represented something not just strategically valuable, but revolutionary; what that something was, however, wasn't entirely clear. Among the slogans the new network used to advertise itself in the weeks leading up to the launch:

The revolution begins here. From now on, the promise of the Internet and the power of television become one. Because from now on, NBC News and Microsoft will revolutionize the way you get news.

And:

The future of news, from the people you know. MSNBC.

And:

You're connected ... to MSNBC.

Connection! Revolution! Future! And yet the content of the first broadcast itself was ... pretty much like the content of any other news network, cable or otherwise. There was Matt Lauer. There was Katie Couric. There was their discussion of the upcoming Olympics -- held, that summer, in Atlanta. The day's lead news story, read by anchor Jodi Applegate, was that Boris Yeltsin had failed to attend a planned meeting with Vice President Gore -- leading to questions about the Russian president's health. (The second story? An MSNBC poll predicted a bleak finish for presidential candidate Bob Dole.) 

The network also announced, however, the start of a new 10 pm show, "The Site," which would be hosted by Soledad O'Brien and which would -- over the course of an entire hour -- explore the issues of "new media" and, in general, "the impact of technology on our lives." (Its slogan: "Make the digital revolution work for you.") The show featured tech journalist Leo Laporte dressed as a computer avatar, and was weird and wacky and, actually, quite webby. The show ended in late August of 1997, when it was phased out in favor of something much more attuned to TV's traditions: the live coverage of the death of Princess Diana.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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