CNBC CEO takes reins in hard times

Thomas-Graham has work cut out at financial news net

NEW YORK — It’s no fun showing up when the party’s over. Ask Pamela Thomas-Graham, the low-profile exec who was quietly promoted to CEO of CNBC last month.

After years of stunning growth, the net faces flat ratings, a devastated ad market and heated up competition.Thomas-Graham, 38, who was previously prexy-CEO of CNBC.com, concedes that she arrived at a tough time.But the Harvard-educated (undergrad, Business and Law schools) former media consultant, the first black woman to make partner at McKinsey & Co., insists that considering the inhospitable environment, CNBC has held up remarkably well.

“If you had asked people two years ago what would happen to CNBC if the Nasdaq dropped to this level, they would have predicted our ratings would drop in half. In fact, we’re flat with 2000, which was a record year for us,” she says.

Parent NBC says CNBC’s advertising revenue ballooned from about $80 million in 1996 to more than $500 million last year. Some call those figures overly ambitious, but there’s no disputing the net was on a roll.

However, earlier this year the cabler eliminated 80 jobs, and industry insiders say 40 more staffers could be pink-slipped in the fall, a rumor that Thomas-Graham denies.

With no operating experience in television, some question whether Thomas-Graham is the person to do the job.

“It’s sort of like bringing in a terrific industrial CEO to run a school district,” says one NBC insider.

Thomas-Graham notes that BET was a client while she was at McKinsey and “I’ve certainly spent a lot of time thinking about strategy for media companies.”

That will come in useful as she now has to worry about CNNfn, long a distant competitor, which is finally starting to show signs of life and will relaunch as CNN Money early next year. CNNfn is in a mere 17 million homes, compared to CNBC’s 82 million. But the smaller net’s deep-pocketed parent AOL Time Warner is committed to gaining distribution.

“We can do even more in the pre-market and post-market hours,” says Thomas-Graham, who is working with NBC News to beef up primetime and weekend programming. In addition to a CNBC book imprint at John Wiley & Sons, the cabler recently partnered with Microsoft on the Internet and has a couple of syndicated radio deals in place.

“We’re the dominant player in the space,” says Thomas-Graham. “But we won’t rest on our laurels.”

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