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Pamela Thomas-Graham's road to success has had surprisingly few speed bumps — until recently.

Her bio is storybook stuff. Born in 1963, she grew up on Detroit's west side during a period of high crime and decay in that troubled city. But her father, who worked in real estate, and her mother, a social worker, stood their ground. Their involvement with the local civil rights movement inspired Thomas-Graham's ambition to become a lawyer. "Thurgood Marshall was a hero of my childhood," she said.

Thomas-Graham was sent to Lutheran parochial schools, and while still in grammar school, she was taken to Harvard University recruiting events by a family friend who had gone to Radcliffe College. Thomas-Graham became enamored with the fabled Ivy League school and became the first student ever from Lutheran High School West to apply. Despite being voted "most likely to succeed" and "smartest" by her high school classmates, the school's guidance counselor told her not to get her hopes up.

But Harvard did accept her and she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in economics. She stayed in Cambridge, Mass., four more years, where she completed a joint master of business arts-juris doctor program, and met her future husband, Lawrence Graham, who was also studying law.

Besides her degrees, Harvard provided the setting for her first murder mystery novel, A Darker Shade of Crimson, which she began writing years later while spending long hours on the road as a businesswoman.

During her ten-year stay at McKinsey & Co., the prestigious New York-based consulting firm, she became its first black female partner in 1995 at age 32. Working side-by-side with CEOs from Fortune 500 companies proved invaluable, she said. "I spent a lot of time working on growth strategies, sales force effectiveness and cost-reduction. And my management style comes out of that experience — working collegially, in teams, in a non-hierarchical structure."

By 1999, she wanted to run a company of her own, and one of her mentors arranged for her to meet Jack Welch, then chairman and CEO of General Electric, which owns NBC and its cable networks CNBC and MSNBC. Welch was sufficiently impressed to call Bob Wright, the president and CEO of NBC — immediately. By the time she got back to her office after meeting Welch, there was a message from Wright on her voice mail asking her to see him.

Wright swiftly hired Thomas-Graham as president and CEO of CNBC.com, where, aided by the booming stock market and the Internet frenzy, she helped make the site competitive with rivals CNNfn.com and CBS Marketwatch.com. But as the Internet flamed out, she ultimately had to fold the site into Microsoft's MSN service, where it became a personal finance destination now branded as CNBC on MSN Money.

A quarter of her staff was laid off, but Thomas-Graham landed on her feet, and was named president and chief operating officer of CNBC in February 2001 and CEO in July.

This time, however, her timing wasn't so fortuitous. The already-crashing ad market was driven even further south by the double whammy of the recession and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. CNBC's ratings have slumped since September, most alarmingly for its showcase Business Center
program, which has been handily outpaced by its CNN archrival, Lou Dobbs' Moneyline. And sometime this year AOL Time Warner is expected to throw considerable programming and promotional muscle behind its CNNfn business news network, renamed CNN Money, which will directly challenge CNBC.

Thomas-Graham blames most of the network's current problems on the "news cycle," contending that viewers have been preoccupied with the war in Afghanistan. She downplays Moneyline's recent ratings surge, declaring that the CNN show is "not appointment viewing," but has merely been a beneficiary of more people watching CNN "because of the war."

Bill Carroll, vice president of programming for Katz Television Group, a New York rep firm, acknowledged that it would be "foolish to underestimate the equity CNBC has with its core viewers who follow financial news." But, he added, the network is also facing the challenge of "reinventing" itself, especially in prime time, where it has lost one of its stars, Geraldo Rivera, and shares shows hosted by Brian Williams and Chris Matthews with MSNBC.

Al Primo, a news consultant famous for originating the "Eyewitness News" concept, said CNBC faces two major dilemmas: losing the "common man" from its audience as interest in following the stock market wanes and having "two different networks on the same channel" as a result of the sharp contrast between its daytime and prime time programming.

NBC News is responsible for programming CNBC's prime time schedule, said Thomas-Graham, who went on to defend the current lineup as consisting of "smart talk shows" that are "relevant to the lives" of the network's core "affluent male" daytime viewers. In addition to touting the desirability of the executives in CNBC's audience, Thomas-Graham also noted the "unmatched scale" of the network's distribution (currently available in over 80 million homes), which, she argued, remains a formidable hurdle for a CNN competitor to match, much less overcome.

Not that she's content. "My marching orders are the same: to insure that CNBC is a growth driver for the company."

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