New muscle for money mavens

Biz cablers' auds take hit, but anchors manage uptick

Forget newsies Connie, Phil and Bill. There’s another world of charismatic cable guides who are more relevant to these dismal economic times. But what you watch may be a matter of how much bad news you can stomach.

With the stock market on a trampoline and corporate scandals breaking every week, some biz shows are booming, while others are busting.

Consider money mavens like Louis Rukeyser, Neil Cavuto and Lou Dobbs: Ratings for their shows are on an upswing.

But the overall numbers for the flagship bizzer CNBC are off, partially because of the roller-coaster indexes and the widening scandals.

“These cablers have certainly lost popularity,” says Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, a TV news watchdog. “Best thing of all for ratings is to have a one-day crash. The next best thing is a same-day bull market. The worst thing is what we have now.”

In years gone by, enthusiastic 401(k) holders may have tuned to CNBC as they would to ESPN, cheering their stocks toward the goal line.

“There are people who say that CNBC is responsible for the bubble,” says its editor in chief Bruno Cohen, “but bubbles existed long before we did.”

CNBC features the fratty fencing of the early morning-gabber “Squawk Box,” the so-called “Money Honey” Maria Bartiromo, the caustic critiques of “Kudlow & Cramer” and the avuncular insouciance of Rukeyser — who now hosts the net’s most-watched skein.

Competitor Bloomberg is almost pointedly wonky. You’d be hard-pressed to name one host on the net.

“People at Bloomberg tend to be more objective about the market,” says Marty Schenker, managing editor of Bloomberg’s broadcast division. “There’s not a lot of showbiz. We take our cue from Bloomberg News.”

CNNfn, another small upstart, is more folksy and tries to put financial news in a broader context. Judging the popularity of one of these nets is tricky. Distributed to 84 million homes in the U.S., CNBC is evaluated by Nielsen ratings, but the cabler rejects the numbers as a measure.

“They’re woefully inadequate,” Cohen says.

The net’s affluent auds aren’t the kind of people who would care to have Nielsen boxes in their homes to begin with. Typically they belong to the “out-of-home” category: checking in on the markets at work, in airports, gyms and second homes.

Instead of flogging its Nielsen ratings, CNBC sells itself to advertisers on the basis of its anecdotal claims that it gets from customized media research: 56% of its households have a net worth of $1 million or more.

CNNfn and Bloomberg, which transmit to 23 million and 20 million homes, respectively, say that their numbers aren’t eligible yet for Nielsen ratings.

Both nets, however, claim a rise in ad revs.

“Our advertising is up significantly from years past,” says Bloomberg’s Schenker, whose net’s sober approach to the market may work in its favor these days. “We’re not expecting declining ad revenue.”

CNNfn, whose advertising is bundled with other AOL Time Warner money-oriented properties such as CNN’s “Moneyline” and Fortune Magazine, also reports an uptick in advertising.

At the same time, however, the net’s much-publicized conversion to “CNN/Money” has devolved into a soft launch. Per operations head Ken Jautz, the total overhaul will happen “eventually.” Right now the only change can be found on the net’s online site.

In any case, CNN prexy Walter Isaacson has his hands full patching holes in the flagship carrier, which is having to parry some heavy blows from upstart rival Fox News. CNNfn is simply not at this moment top of mind among AOL TW cable bosses.

But CNBC may be suffering the most.

According to Nielsen, its aud has dropped by almost 25% vs. last year. CNBC execs offer a different spin on the numbers.

For example, its 5 p.m. skein “Business Center” averaged 239,000 viewers last week, down 16% from the same week the year before. In three months, Rukeyser’s 8:30 p.m. Friday show has averaged 407,000 viewers.

Yet his numbers pale in comparison to Dobbs’ CNN skein “Moneyline,” whose 6 o’clocker has been averaging 505,000 viewers.

Fox News’ “Your World, With Neil Cavuto,” which airs at 4 p.m., attracts the largest business aud on cable. The tenacious former CNBC anchor draws 50% more viewers on average than Rukeyser.

Both consumer-cabler hosts have seen triple-digit percentage growth vs. last year in their ratings year-to-date — part of that due no doubt to the general uptick from 9/11 coverage.

So would it be shrewd for CNBC to head to the middle, where business meets economics and politics? Cohen doesn’t see the wisdom in it.

Instead, he points to the cabler’s most recent strategies. It has shuffled its primetime schedule, gearing its editorial toward after-hours trading, biz news and government issues.

Last year it brought on author Suze Orman to tackle personal finance and recently signed up former SEC member Laura Unger to dig into issues of corporate malfeasance.

At the same time, the WorldCom scoop by anchor David Faber and the cabler’s thrilling sidewalk pursuit of disgraced analyst Jack Grubman further helped its ratings.

While a few more stories like these would help, Cohen says it won’t expand its investigative budget. “We’re not a regulatory agency,” he said.

But even if the net sidesteps disaster, it’s still a long way back.

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