On the digital frontline

Shawn Hardin has pretty much done it all in the media business in a relatively short career span. He spent several years in the filmmaking business before making the transition to a television network. And now he's directing operations for NBC Internet in what is perhaps the most crucial period of transition in its brief history.

His original intention was to direct movies. He graduated from the cinema/TV school at the University of Southern California in 1995 and moved immediately into film production. "USC was known for production, and I wanted to get my hands dirty and do a bunch of films," Hardin recalls.

So he immersed himself in free-lance work for several years, taking a variety of assignments on different projects, from doing camera work on a music video to editing feature films to doing corporate work. He was a segment producer/director on an MTV series, Like We Care, over two seasons. He served as a second-unit director on Pagemaster and as pre-animation director on Jumanji.

Hardin hooked up with NBC as a producer/cameraman in 1993, doing a piece about a day in the life of a little-known comedian named Conan O'Brien, who was being considered as a replacement for David Letterman. That led to a full-time position with the network as a senior writer/producer on the NBC 2000 project in 1994. It was a groundbreaking project at the time, a digital production unit that developed a new wrinkle: squeezing traditional show-ending credits into a split-screen box, with a promotional spot and a segue to the next show in the other half of the screen.

"NBC was then the largest producer of digital video in the world," says Hardin. "That's why I came to NBC. I wanted to be a part of that."

Hardin was quickly promoted to supervising producer of the digital unit. But he was soon contemplating another digital direction entirely. He asked to be put in charge of "a ragtag group of five people in crappy old offices" that NBC was assembling as its first Web-production unit in Los Angeles.

In 1995, that NBC New Media unit launched NBC.com, co-located on MSN in NBC's first relationship with Microsoft, with content around The Tonight Show.

That digital front quickly opened up in 1996 with the creation of MSNBC. Hardin was among those looking at ways to create immersive experiences online out of NBC on-air series. Those efforts spawned development of content for Saturday Night Live, rising star Conan O'Brien, and the Second Shift project that spun parallel plot lines with new characters from the Homicide police drama.

"It was ahead of its time," he says and, he adds, too far ahead to succeed.

Hardin also oversaw NBC's next big digital initiative, broadcasting the 1996 Olympics with enhanced content distributed through Intercast PC technology developed with Intel Corp. Only 20,000 viewers had access to it, and Intercast is no more. But it set the stage for the future Hardin sees in interactive media. "Where it's moving is a very consumer-friendly experience, where you don't have to boot up and you don't get a blue screen."

The next milestone for NBC was its investment in CNet two years later, which sparked the co-development of the Snap.com portal and evolved into the current NBCi. Hardin joined Snap at the outset, and now he's helping to set NBC's course online as NBCi relaunches this month.

The goal is to consolidate the respective operations, such as e-commerce and search functionality, and accelerate the move toward profitability prior to the mid-2002 date when analysts expect NBCi to achieve a positive cash flow.

As Hardin puts it, the "speculative froth" of the Web's early years has dissipated, and NBCi is under pressure to perform. "We're getting our house in order internally," he says, "and we have a lot to do."