Biz net builds buzz

CNBC aims to expand its daytime aud into evening

It’s a rarefied world of diversified portfolios and liquid assets; a universe in which a sit-down with Fed chair Ben Bernanke or Warren Buffett count as celebrity interviews.

CNBC’s primetime rises and sets with the trading day, with peaks during “Morning Call,” when its high-end audience checks in on how the markets are doing, and during “Closing Bell” when the New York-based markets close.

But the question for CNBC has long been how to reach its core viewers after the workday ends. Recent forays have featured less-than-successful hosts Dennis Miller and John McEnroe, as well as the struggling “The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch.”

To fill other primetime holes, the net has deployed repeats of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “The Apprentice” and most recently, “Deal or No Deal,” which until it ended its run last week, was the cabler’s highest-rated show.

But president Mark Hoffman is trying a different approach this summer, one he hopes will extend CNBC’s core programming into primetime.

In October, he replaced “Conan” with “On the Money,” which explores the nexus of business and pop culture.

The show, created by former “Today” exec producer Jonathan Wald, has improved the hour 72% in adults 25-54 since its launch, now drawing more viewers in the timeslot than O’Brien did.

The rewards for planting a flag in primetime are enormous from an ad standpoint. CNBC can charge $15 to reach a thousand viewers for “On the Money” and only $6 for a “Conan O’Brien” repeat.

With a hit in Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money” at 6 p.m. and “On the Money” at 7, Hoffman is now attempting to establish a beachhead at 8 by testing a mix of programming.

“We’ve tried to make it so when people get home from work or get off the clock that there is some traditional CNBC fare for them to tune in to,” Hoffman says.

Shows include “CNBC Prime,” a repackaging of the best taped pieces of the week; “CNBC Documentaries”; live, single-topic “Town Hall”; and “Fast Money,” a round-table of traders talking about the markets.

Michael Eisner’s “Conversations” will also air in the timeslot as new episodes become available.

After years of falling ratings and a potential challenge from News Corp.’s upcoming Fox Business Channel, NBC U topper Bob Wright shook up the net in February 2005, bringing in Hoffman, a CNBC vet and general manager of NBC affil WVIT in Hartford, Conn., to replace Pamela Thomas-Graham.

Hoffman’s tenure has been marked by big changes in CNBC’s Business Day programming, but none as obvious as the cacophony of tickers, flashing Chyrons and graphics with more sound effects than a Fox NFL telecast. But the changes have been more than cosmetic: the average number of daily guests — CEOs, traders, pundits — more than doubled from 42 to 87.”That’s about getting a diversity of opinion, qualitative debate and making it a place where there is an intellectual energy that plays out on the air,” Hoffman says.

CNBC’s Nielsen viewership — not an accurate metric because most CNBC viewing occurs in workplaces — peaked in 2001 at 330,000 just before the Internet bubble burst. After that, the net fell into a prolonged slump; at the beginning of 2005, the average was 134,000.

But from May 2005 to last month, CNBC had increased every hour during Business Day compared with the previous year, reversing a four-year slide. So far in 2006, total viewers have rebounded to 211,000. Still small, but for the first time in years, CNBC’s numbers are heading in the right direction.

The demise of CNNfn in 2004 left CNBC no significant competitor on the tube short of Bloomberg TV, which airs on E! Channel in the mornings.

While its viewership is exceedingly small and one of the oldest in television, CNBC practically mints money for NBC U, throwing off an estimated $250 million in annual profit.

For now, there is little in the market to challenge it.

Talks with cable and satellite operators are progressing, but FNC topper Roger Ailes has said he has no interest in launching Fox Business Channel without full distribution, which could take months to achieve as current carriage agreements expire.

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