Briefly in the late 1990s, two cable television networks became America’s national obsession. CNBC and CNNfn, with their constant stream of business news delivered in the manner of a sports show, held the nation’s attention as everyone cheered on share prices to record highs. Bosses, seeking fame and a higher share price, competed to appear on shows whose hosts — such as Maria “money honey” Bartiromo — became celebrities. Advertisers paid top dollar for the glued eyeballs of so monied a demographic.
Alas, the fame was all too brief. In December, CNNfn will be taken off the air after nine years. Viewership was so small that it had become unmeasurable. CNBC is doing better but not well, with just 164,000 viewers a day, according to Nielsen Media, a research firm — though many more ignore it as it plays silently on the flat screens in bank offices.
If there is any surprise, it is that Time Warner’s offering should have been the first to die. Because of its direct ownership of cable systems (that could provide access to viewers) and CNN (thus providing a brand and promotional partner) and numerous financial and non-financial publications (thus providing content), CNNfn should have been ideally placed to exploit whatever niche did exist. Instead, even obvious synergies have not been exploited.
In big markets such as New York, for example, Time Warner owns a big cable operator as well as a popular local news station (New York 1). But it never bothered to encourage viewers to hop between its various networks. Viewers of New York 1 or CNN who wanted more detail on a business story would be hard pressed to find CNNfn. The model for producing content was also flawed. Most of the guest “talent” appearing on air was uncompensated and often worth less than it was paid. Guests appeared mostly because they had something to sell. Nor did CNNfn develop other business journalism superstars to balance the increasingly protectionist Lou Dobbs. CNBC has Ms Bartiromo, James Cramer, Larry Kudlow and more. Even Neil Cavuto on mainstream Fox channels is better known than CNNfn’s regulars.
The greatest flaw, however, may have been the underlying idea. Though, ostensibly, a network devoted to business news is about business, in fact, during the 1990s when its popularity was peaking, business news was really about getting rich. Watching share prices crumble was less fun, and being misled by bulls was more costly than being misled by bears. Day traders have largely been wiped out. The reality of business — a tough, often tedious slog — and of investing may not be compelling enough for television. Last year people found it more enjoyable to watch Donald Trump pretend to share the secrets of getting wealthy. This year, as his Atlantic City casino empire flirts with bankruptcy, that too is losing its appeal. How long before CNBC, like CNNfn, is fired?