Will the bad business news of the past month offer hope to struggling CNBC?

By David Bauder, The Associated Press
Friday July 05, 2002

NEW YORK – Nearly buried in the bad financial news of the past week was the glimmer of hope it offered to struggling CNBC. 

On June 26, the day after CNBC’s David Faber first reported about WorldCom Inc. inflating earnings by hiding nearly $4 billion in expenses, the cable network had 29 percent more viewers than on a typical day this year. 

After a nearly unrelenting two-year run of bad news following the bursting of the Internet bubble, CNBC will seize on even that small reason for optimism. 

“I do think we’re going through a historic period right now where American investors are going to have to engage in the complexities of the financial markets,” said Pamela Thomas-Graham, CNBC’s chief executive. 

And, she hopes, engage in CNBC again. 

The cable network has fallen far from its peak, when it averaged 418,000 viewers during the day in March 2000. For a few months, more people watched CNBC during the day than watched CNN. 

CNBC earned not only high ratings, but a cultural buzz. Watching CNBC’s ticker to see how your investments were doing during the boom years was a fad, the late rock singer Joey Ramone even writing a song about it entitled “Maria Bartiromo,” after his favorite CNBC reporter. 

“We were the great story of the late ’90s and everyone wanted to get involved,” Faber said. “It was good news and it’s a lot easier to watch good news.” 

The network’s ratings fell with the stock market. During the first half of this year, CNBC’s average viewership of 232,000 was 23 percent lower than it was the year earlier, according to Nielsen Media Research. 

Fewer people are investing in stocks market now and, with the market doing poorly, even fewer want to hear about it every day, said Jack Wakshlag, a ratings analyst for the Turner television networks. 

At the same time, viewers turned to cable news networks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, at the expense of CNBC. Fox News Channel averaged 643,000 viewers a day during the first half of the year and CNN had 525,000. 

CNBC will focus heavily on the corporate scandals as they unfold, Thomas-Graham said. The network announced this week it had hired former Securities and Exchange Commission member Laura Unger as a commentator. 

The WorldCom story, not necessarily the insider trading accusations against Martha Stewart, seemed to resound first with CNBC viewers. 

The two top-rated cable business shows, Neil Cavuto’s “Your World” on Fox News Channel and Lou Dobbs’ “Moneyline” on CNN, also saw modest increases in viewership on June 26. CNN’s financial news Web site had a 30 percent increase in traffic that day. 

CNBC has long complained that Nielsen Media Research doesn’t accurately measure its audience. Since Nielsen measures only in-home use, it doesn’t count people watching the network at the workplace or gym. 

That doesn’t stop network executives from checking the numbers carefully, however. They are keeping their fingers crossed that, unlike during the past two years, viewers will want to know more about the bad financial news. 

“We run the risk, as the market does, of if people give up, people stop watching,” Faber said. 

Along with the hiring of Unger, CNBC is converting its nightly prime-time lineup primarily to business programming for the first time ever. That’s partly out of necessity — it has no non-business star like Geraldo Rivera anymore — and out of design to sharpen the network’s focus, Thomas-Graham said. 

Brian Williams’ one-hour newscast will be moving from MSNBC to CNBC exclusively starting July 15. The first third of Williams’ show will be about general news, with the rest largely concentrating on business, she said.