NEW YORK – You've got to wake up early on a weekend to catch Soledad O'Brien.
Say 4:30 a.m. Saturday in Chicago. Or 5 a.m. on Sunday in New York and Houston. It's 6:30 a.m. Saturday in Washington, D.C. — almost sleep-in territory.
Those are some of the time slots for “Matter of Fact,” the news show she anchors that has overcome those hours over seven years to establish itself over in the syndicated market. Produced by Hearst Television, “Matter of Fact” is available in 181 markets covering 95 percent of the country.
“People will find you if you're doing a good job,” O'Brien said, “and they will skip you if you're not doing a good job.”
“Matter of Fact” averages about 1.08 million viewers each weekend, roughly half the audience for broadcast network panel shows like “Meet the Press” or “This Week,” according to Nielsen company, which measures ratings. That's down from a pandemic- and election-aided peak of 1.2 million in 2020, but double what it was at the show's start in 2015.
That's notable given that the program has no consistent time slot all over the country and, in some places, literally airs in the middle of the night.
O'Brien, formerly of CNN, also contributes to HBO's “Real Sports,” but most of her time now is spent running her own production company. Her HBO docuseries “Black and Missing” won a Film Independent Spirit Award, and a doc about Rosa Parks recently premiered at the Tribeca film festival.
O'Brien wanted to keep a hand in onscreen television work and, when approached for “Matter of Fact,” met with executive producer Rita Aleman and found that they had similar ideas.
“The mission of the show was always to share voices as diverse as America, slices of life that people should see in order to understand how issues play out across the country,” Aleman said.
Hearst was looking to design a show that included voices not normally heard on network panel shows, where occasionally the same government official will appear on two or three on the same weekend, said Emerson Coleman, Hearst's senior vice president of programming, who developed the show.
There was also a desire to turn down the volume. The inherent conflict of political shows “makes for good TV, but we have a different approach,” Coleman said.
“I found that I was very underwhelmed by the interviews we were getting,” O'Brien said. “People were talking about policy but not really talking about human beings. So we decided to cut out the middle man.”
To a large extent, “Matter of Fact” is a reported show. Reporter Jessica Gomez visited a hospital in Texas' Titus County for a story on rural health care. The show profiled Emmanuel Pratt, a MacArthur Foundation fellow who runs an urban redevelopment agency that uses agriculture and carpentry to spur revivals.
O'Brien refers to the show as a “teaching hospital” of news.
“I don't know that you can go wrong in elevating people who've been doing good work in difficult circumstances and giving them a platform,” she said. “I think we don't do it enough.”
The effort to get closer to communities where “Matter of Fact” is broadcast is reflected in a just-completed project that became more involved as it was ongoing.
Like many news organizations, “Matter of Fact” and the 33-owned Hearst television stations underwent some soul-searching following the George Floyd murder two years ago. They wanted to elevate the concerns of communities that often lacked media attention.
Their idea for a “listening tour” turned into a sprawling, four-part series of programs, each 90-minutes long as shown online and edited down to an hour for television outlets that included the A&E network. The first gave a platform to citizens to talk about bias, the second reflected the opinions of people in the arts and academia. The third, which featured O'Brien's interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor about hate speech, illustrated grassroots efforts at improving relations.
The last program, released for the Juneteenth holiday last month, focused on profiling a new generation of activists. Among those featured were Tarana Burke of the #MeToo movement, Parkland school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez and gymnast Simone Biles.
“It's easy to go through the history books and just say, ‘Oh, here’s people everybody knows already,'” O'Brien said. “It was also very important to find people working in a modern-day context, so it wasn't just a historic look back at civil rights in the 1960s.”
Besides television and online, including weekly “Matter of Fact” episodes, material gathered from the “listening tour” was used in Hearst magazines like Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Good Housekeeping and Oprah.
So it's not primarily insomniacs who see the work.
Hearst executives are always on the lookout for upgrades, television stations that might want to present “Matter of Fact” more in the light of day. O'Brien lets the “suits” worry about that.
“I wouldn't call them pretty lousy time slots because we have viewers there,” she said. “We would call them challenges that we would love to overcome.”