Long Before AI or Streaming Impacted the News, There Was NBC SuperNet

When Katie Couric famously asked during a 1994 episode of “TODAY,” “Allison, can you explain what internet is?” she was talking to the show’s computer-savvy writer-producer Allison Davis. The “TODAY” hosts were trying to get internet responses to a news segment, but the format of email addresses confused them. 

“I remember they were trying to figure out what the ‘@’ was. And that’s because they had never used it before,” Davis said. “I think that was one of the first times that was shared on broadcast.” 

Allison Davis, when she worked for “TODAY.”
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The following year, Davis was tapped to lead a team of seven delivering NBC News stories to Microsoft Network’s web portal, MSN.com. Once their output exceeded MSN’s needs, they decided to create their own online news platform — NBC SuperNet, a precursor to a much larger joint venture between Microsoft and NBC, MSNBC.com.  

“NBC SuperNet was the first original reporting online,” Davis said. “Other broadcast entities had an online presence, but frankly, they were just rehashing what was on their broadcast stations. We actually did original journalism.”  

Watch the video above or read below for Davis’ recollections of the early days of NBC News’ online reporting.  

How did you become interested in the internet?

In 1985, when I was pregnant, I first used NBC [computer] terminals and I was pretty good at it. I began to love computers, and instead of buying the latest bag, shoes, hat or coat, I was buying computer equipment. I wanted to be a full-time mother and a full-time employee, and the only way that I could do that at the time was to understand and embrace technology.  

It wasn’t the same internet that we know now — it was computers talking to each other. But it was a system where I could find an encyclopedia or dictionary, [instead of having] to go to the library to find that information. It became a time-saver for me.

When you first started NBC SuperNet in 1995, how did you gauge success?

Michelle Preli, former NBC SuperNet Associate Producer

Our audience was built over time. It’s not like you had social networks. We did news quizzes every Friday, we had T-shirts made up that said “SuperNet.” We could only gauge success by folks responding to our quizzes.

The SuperNet [expanded] in ways that surprised us. When Iowa had their [1996 presidential] caucuses, NBC said, “Why don’t you send a ‘cyberjournalist’ out to Iowa?” And we did — we believe it was among the first original news on the internet.

What did NBC SuperNet look like? Did it have a homepage”?

The SuperNet was basically text distributed digitally. We did have some graphics, but nothing much. We may have had some audio, but there was no video because the modems couldn’t support video. The homepage had a gray-blue background with some headlines and regular font, but the stories were good.

“NBC httv,” NBC’s website launched in August 1995, included a link to “NBC SuperNet on MSN.”

Did you think at the time that online news was the future of the industry?

I absolutely felt that this was the future of news distribution. There was no doubt in my mind. I was impatient. I wanted to push it even further.

What is the legacy of NBC SuperNet?

Our legacy was in our originality. We were able to bring on people who could write and produce in this new medium. I am delighted that my team now realizes the history that they’ve made. MSNBC is far different than what we established it to be, but 25-plus years later, it’s still there. I am proud of what we did to ensure its sustainability.