News cabler broadens its focus, skeds soft relaunch

NEW YORK — CNBC has decided to step back and start taking in the big picture.

“We’re not a stock net anymore,” said David Friend, the net’s interim head of business news who replaced editor in chief Bruno Cohen last month.

“Instead, we’re going to report on the most important business stories of our generation.”

Tarnished, perhaps, by its Wall Street cheerleading during the boom, the market-watcher that once led the cable news pack has been losing auds and is going through its own market correction.

Its soft relaunch will be christened Monday with “The Price of War,” a five-day series of special programming that examines the impact of a war with Iraq and its effects on the global economy.

Responding to the fevered audience growth of more all-inclusive economy-themed programs like Fox News Channel’s “Your World With Neil Cavuto” and CNN’s “Moneyline,” the net is reaching out to the general consumer.

It has recently covered more consumer stories like the dockworkers’ strikes in California. And Wall Street Journal reporter and correspondent Becky Quick will conduct a cross-country local-flavored tour of the American economy before the midterm election Nov. 5.

These days, it’s all about reaching out beyond Wall Street. CNBC even has a Washington bureau chief, Alan Murray, who along with Tyler Mathisen will host the net’s coverage of the election.

Cosmetically, the net still has running tickers and a bug (much like its cable competish), but Friend emphasizes the editorial mission of the net has changed. “We used to be about reaction, but we want reporters to be more proactive now.”

To that end, reporters will be out in the field to a larger degree.Friend points to reporter Mike Huckman’s street pursuit of disgraced investment analyst Jack Grubman as a paradigm of the cabler’s new flavor.

Losing eyes

If ratings are any indication, the old formula just wasn’t working.

While the net doesn’t agree that Nielsen Media Research accurately measures its hyper-mobile, affluent auds, ratings have sagged whereas most cablers have seen year-to-year growth. (CNBC’s two main competitors, CNNfn and Bloomberg, aren’t in enough households to be rated by Nielsen.)

During its Business Day programming — which stretches from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. — CNBC’s audience was off 6% vs. last year. Averaging 268,000 total viewers in the third quarter of this year, the net was down 5% compared with the same period the prior year.

But there is an upside for the cabler. Its auds have jumped 15%, to an average of 268,000, from the second to third quarter of this year.

Though its ratings are small — and don’t count the number of viewers who watch the net at work, at gyms or airports — media buyers still endorse the net for its attractive, upscale demos, favoring it over CNNfn and Bloomberg.

And they like the new end-run around the markets, too.

“Wall Street’s just not an hourly obsession anymore,” says Tim Spengler, exec VP and director of national broadcasting for Initiative Media. “It’s not a spectator sport anymore.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more