Bulls versus Bears? That's nothing compared to the
battle that's been brewing on Wall Street since October between the king of the
business wrap-up shows on cable and its upstart rival.
So far, the champ, Cable News Network's Moneyline
with Lou Dobbs,has shown no signs of wavering.
But CNBC executives pinned much on that network's new
challenger -- Business Center, withco-anchor Maria Bartiromo -- which, they
said last spring, was meant to be CNBC's 'signature show' and 'the
most comprehensive business-news program on television,' wrapping up the business
news of the day.
CNBC's strategy seemed more promising on paper than in
execution: to go head-to-head with Dobbs by offering the attractive Bartiromo and a
faster-paced format as a way to generate on the television screen the kind of buzz that
she's sparked on the New York Stock Exchange floor. But critics said Bartiromo's
much-publicized 'smoky gray eyes' weren't enough to lure the financially
minded audience away from her onetime boss.
In fact, Business Center is now languishing with
household numbers below those of its predecessor, Money Club, and it ranks among
CNBC's lowest-rated current shows, according to Nielsen Media Research ratings.
Executives at CNBC and CNN seemed wary of getting into a
new war of words about their programming battle. At CNBC, Bruno Cohen, senior vice
president of business news, as well as Business Center's new producer, Mark
Hoffman, and the program's co-anchors all declined to comment, as did Dobbs.
But at last month's Television Critics Association
winter tour in Pasadena, Calif., CNN News Group chairman Tom Johnson crowed about
Dobbs' success against CNBC's challenge.
'We've ... beaten back -- and, I think, beaten
back soundly -- a well-financed, heavily promoted CNBC competitor to Moneyline with Lou
Dobbs,' Johnson said. 'Lou remains the signature business anchor and, I
think, the best and most important business show in television. It's got nearly the
highest CPMs [cost per thousand homes] in television -- not just cable ... The'Money
Honey' [Bartiromo] did not dislodge the reigning champ, Lou Dobbs.'
CNBC executives previously were more talkative, while Dobbs
-- who's also a CNN senior vice president and the man behind its CNNfn financial-news
spinoff network -- has tended to downplay the CNBC challenge in the rare interviews that
he's given on the subject.
Business Center started strong. Undoubtedly due, at
least in part, to all of the media hype surrounding its Oct. 14 premiere, the program --
co-anchored by Tyler Mathisen, who presumably built a following as money editor for
ABC's Good Morning America and as Money magazine's executive
editor -- notched its best numbers in a week to date: a 0.3 rating, versus Moneyline's
0.4, according to Nielsen.
In addition, Business Center benefited from the
so-called Asian contagion -- the stock-market meltdowns in Asia that pulled down the
American stock market by 554 points on Oct. 27. But so did Moneyline. CNBC's
show posted a 0.3 rating for the week ending Nov. 2. Although that was the upstart's
second-best performance, it didn't hurt Moneyline, which garnered a 0.7 that
same week to enjoy its best showing of the 10-week stretch through Dec. 19.
But Business Center's Nielsens soon headed
south. Indeed, CNN spokesman Howard Polskin maintained that Business Center had
lost one-half of its audience between mid-October and late December.
According to 10 weeks of Nielsen data, from Oct. 14 through
Dec. 19, Moneyline averaged a 0.6 rating -- roughly triple the numbers for Business
Center, which had a 0.2.
In each of the four weeks through Dec. 19, Business
Center averaged a 0.1 rating, compared with Money Club, which had drawn a 0.2.
In that same stretch, Moneyline was enjoying household ratings in the 0.5 to 0.6
Nonetheless, CNBC spokesman George Jamison contended that Business
Center posted a 16 percent improvement over Money Club's ratings
performance in the fourth quarter of 1996, and that the newcomer, in Nielsen's
viewers per 1,000 viewing households breakout, outscored its predecessor by 39 percent and
40 percent in the 25-to-54 and 18-to-49 age groups, respectively.
Despite the competition, CNN boasted that it carried
'the top five business programs on cable' during 1997, led by Moneyline,
which averaged a 0.5 rating.
So what went wrong in CNBC's battle plan? Jamison
described Business Center as 'a work in progress, no question about it. But
we've got about three months of experience [with this program],' versus 17 years
for Moneyline, a show that's 'extremely well-branded.' Still, he
added, 'We expect that Business Center will grow. This is not an overnight
Those on the advertising-agency sideare less
reticent about what needs to be fixed, although most declined to speak on the record.
Some agency buyers felt that CNBC took the wrong tack from
the start by overplaying the sex-appeal angle in its on-air promo spots and publicity for
an audience that cares more about financial expertise and analytical experience.
Still, the high-profile Bartiromo -- who's on CNBC
each hour reporting live from the exchange until the market closes -- is no airhead.
She's been reporting for CNBC since 1993 and, before that, for CNN.
Others, such as Bill Croasdale, Western International
Media's national-broadcast-division president, said Business Center leaned a
bit too heavily on coverage of the media and entertainment fields.
'It was initially a little glitzy, but I don't
think that anything really went wrong,' Croasdale said. 'You're looking at
an established host [Dobbs] who's built up a following over the years. CNBC took its
best shot, and it just hasn't worked out. That doesn't mean the show's a
He likened BusinessCenter's experience
to the primetime entertainment sector, where TV networks futilely 'throw new shows up
against a Home Improvement, a Seinfeld or a Touched by anAngel.'
In terms of graphics and overall look, as a New York
Post article put it, Business Center is akin to Entertainment Tonight,
MTV: Music Television and Hard Copy, while Moneyline is more like The CBS
Evening News with Dan Rather.
Business Center's original focus apparently came
from its executive producer, veteran Jack Reilly. Although he had been CNBC's vice
president of business news since 1994, Reilly is best known for his producer stints at the
flashier Good Morning America and ET.
With Reilly's departure in November (he'd already
planned to leave by year's end, in any case, CNBC said), the program began to
emphasize harder stock-market and business news, while steering away from softer features.
Reilly was replaced by Mark Hoffman, who had been producing CNBC's late-afternoon and
early evening business news.
While contending that there have been no dramatic changes
in emphasis since Hoffman's arrival, Jamison said there's now 'a harder
news edge to the show.' He also contended that 'we break news on Business
One example from December, he added, was Bartiromo's
scoop on a far-reaching Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into
over-the-counter Wall Street trading operations and related resignations by six
PaineWebber staffers. Beyond that, the spokesman said, CNBC won't comment on
speculation about other possible retooling ideas.
'It's a long-term contest,' and one in which
CNBC hopes to benefit from its 14 hours of live business-news programming leading up to
the program, Jamison said.
However, Croasdale observed that 'CNBC's strength
is while the market is open. But viewers tend to gravitate away after the market's
CNBC's initially glitzy focus was in part attributable
to Business Center's intent to target younger demographics -- mainly the
30-somethings and 'Generation Xers' -- some agency executives felt.
CNBC executives last October were claiming that their
program would be fresher and younger-looking than Dobbs' 17-year-old show. But
Jamison said CNBC concentrates on adults aged 25 to 54 -- the demographic that most
appeals to its advertising clientele. Based on the Nielsen demographic ratings from
mid-October through Dec. 30, Moneyline has easily dominated Business Center
in that age group, attracting roughly double the viewers of CNBC's challenger; CNN
also dominated among viewers aged 18 to 49.
It's unclear what other changes may yet be due at Business
Center in the new year. There are rumors that the program may move a half-hour earlier
or later, possibly to eventually be replaced by a totally different show -- one that would
star Geraldo Rivera, an outgrowth from Rivera's recent six-year, $30 million-plus
CNBC/NBC contract. Besides renewing Rivera Live, CNBC's nightly look at legal
issues at 9 p.m., that pact calls for the development of a new, nonbusiness show that some
felt might wind up at 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m.
Shifting Business Center earlier, some sources felt,
would give it weaker competition and a jump on Dobbs. Croasdale, for one, said it might
make 'strategic' sense for CNBC to counterprogram Dobbs with Rivera's
project and to give Business Center a 30-minute jump on Dobbs.
However, Jamison maintained that there have been no
decisions at this point on either Rivera's new program or on schedule changes.
'The current plan is to keep Business Center where it is,' he said.
In any case, now that Dobbs has easily survived the initial
CNBC onslaught, the Business Center crew is on the hot seat. Hoffman and his
anchors may have, at most, a few months to tinker with the show's content, to mount a
revamped marketing salvo and to aim for a ratings turnaround -- if industry speculation is
accurate that Rivera's project won't be ready until springtime.