‘Money’ man takes stock of media

Leslie Moonves says he likes the show — though it runs on a rival conglom’s cable outlet. But then the CBS topper was about to be interviewed on the show and he may have wanted to establish a friendly tone before being grilled.

Most execs do need to gird themselves when they go on the most unbuttoned, and definitely the loudest, financial program on TV.

I’m talking about “Mad Money,” which financial guru Jim Cramer hosts three times a day on CNBC. (That frequency may be in part because the cable newsie’s other evening shows, with Dennis Miller and John McEnroe, didn’t cut it.) Since its debut in March, ratings have been climbing.

Cramer, who used to be partnered — some say straitjacketed — on the “Kudlow & Cramer” financial gabber, has come into his own as the galloping gourmet of the stock market, peppering his picks with withering analyses and occasionally pouring salt into the wounds of floundering companies.

With the overall market going sideways for five years, some fresh way of dealing with unexciting financial news needed to happen.

The show has elements of “The Gong Show” and “Beat the Clock” — and the host delivers his buy, sell or hold tips to callers in a no-holds-barred 15-minute “lightning round” seg, complete with sound effects. On occasion he even spits, into a handkerchief.

Cramer largely credits producer Susan Krakower with unleashing his peculiar talents, tweaking a format that makes use of his radio skills, his quick wit and near encyclopedic knowledge of stocks.

“Mad Money” is more akin to a freewheeling sports call-in program than the staid “Wall Street Week” and probably couldn’t have been carried off before reality TV started breaking taboos or before the scandals of Enron and its ilk.

Warts-and-all TV is popular across a range of genres now. Corporate malfeasance has indirectly brought down a number of analyst types who were shown to be crooked or to have had ties to the stocks they touted.

Auds, in other words, were ready for an unvarnished, unfiltered approach to stock advice — one tailor-made for the little guys, the ones who really got shafted when the bubble burst in 2000.

We live in a coarse age, and this is unapologetically a coarse show. Unlike the cool-as-a-cucumber Louis Rukeyser, whose avuncular approach set the tone for financial mags for 30 years, Cramer rolls up his sleeves and works up a sweat as he “booyahs” his way through the Wilshire 5,000.

Rarely is there a stock symbol he doesn’t recognize or have an opinion about.

And despite how manic and iconoclastic he is on camera, Cramer has conservative views about stocks: He believes in dividends, strong management, companies that are “best in breed” and ones that play by the rules. He doesn’t think investors should bet the farm on risky ventures, but he does believe smart bets pay off.

Lately he’s been high on tech and health care, though often not on the Microsofts or Mercks but on lesser-known names. Often he’ll steer a caller away from one stock to what he thinks is a better bet in the same class: Forget Belo, buy Scripps, he said last week. Back up the truck to Caterpillar but look at TEX (Terex) as well.

On media, he has lately been bearish, singling out DreamWorks Animation for particular disdain. (That stock is down 35% since the October IPO and the SEC is probing some alleged post-IPO irregularities.) “They leaked the quarter,” he told Variety. “Even in Hollywood you gotta play by the rules.” He is scathing about folks who invest willy-nilly in Hollywood because they think it “cool or hip.”

But on Moonves and his soon-to-be-separate CBS Inc., Cramer was reasonably bullish.

He couldn’t get Moonves to commit to a 3% dividend once the stock is split off from Viacom, and he didn’t think (or know?) to ask why the Eye feels the urge to get involved in the film biz, but he did bring up other pertinent questions.

Is CBS still the geezer net? No, Moonves said: It actually won the 18-49 crown this past season. Is Tivo a threat? No, not yet, only a few folks actually use it to skip the ads.

In any case, though the stock doesn’t stand on its own until January, the company is, Moonves argued, “a cash generator.” That’s something Cramer does like to hear, and he gave CBS Inc. the thumbs-up.

Viacom, which still includes the merged Paramount and CBS, rose 1.7% the next day to close at $33.87.

I’ll bet Tom Freston, the guy who runs the other half of the Viacom empire, was watching.

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