CNBC, NBC News Face Potential Culture Clash in NBCUniversal Reunion

Analysis: Will CNBC have to recalibrate its freewheeling policy on commentary as it joins with NBC News and MSNBC?

Squawk Box CNBC
Courtesy of CNBC

Rick Santelli, the veteran CNBC correspondent, recently got into an on-air spat with one of his longtime colleagues. Whether he will be given leeway to spar in similar fashion with new co-workers elsewhere in the company is something executives at NBCUniversal ought to work quickly to decide.

During an early-December panel on the business-news network’s “Squawk Box,” Santelli began to yell at Andrew Ross Sorkin, who pressed him on comments he had made about coronavirus restrictions at restaurants. Sorkin pushed his colleague to exercise greater caution about suggesting viewers should be able to crowd into restaurants the way they do into retail outlets.

“Who is this? Who is this?” asked Santelli, even though Sorkin has been a co-host of the program for almost a decade. As Sorkin prodded Santelli to reconsider what he said, the correspondent went into an on-air huff. “I disagree. I disagree! I disagree!” said Santelli, his voice rising with the issuance of each short sentence. “You can have your thoughts and I can have mine. I disagree.”

He folded his arms across his chest and glared into the lens transporting the image of his face to viewers. Timothy O’Brien, a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion (the owner, Bloomberg LP, is a CNBC competitor), called the dust-up “another tragicomic Covid-19 moment to ponder.”

CNBC has allowed its anchors and correspondents to speak their minds on issues in the past. But it’s hard to reconcile this sort of anchor-on-anchor skirmish with the broadcasts delivered by NBC News and MSNBC, where most correspondents and hosts seem to agree on a common set of facts and rules of decorum.  Can you imagine Santelli having a similar exchange with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” or Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on NBC’s “Today”?

Executives at NBCUniversal may have to. In May, CNBC, which has in recent years operated as an independent unit, was placed under the same corporate umbrella as NBC News and MSNBCand a new boss, Cesar Conde (the two have been part of the same organization in the past). Previously, CNBC Chairman Mark Hoffman reported directly to former NBCU CEO Steve Burke. In a sign of the interest in growing synergy between the operations, a new CNBC evening program, “The News With Shepard Smith,” features contributions from CNBC correspondents like Jane Wells and Ylan Mui alongside those of NBC News staffers like Morgan Chesky and Jay Gray.

CNBC hasn’t had to focus on playing with others in some time. There was an era when Becky Quick might turn up on “NBC Nightly News” and Maria Bartiromo would make an appearance on “Today.” In recent years, however, the two operations have forged their own paths. Despite the longtime presence of media correspondent Julia Boorstin at CNBC, NBC News built its own team to cover the media industry. And the ready availability of dozens of business journalists at CNBC didn’t keep NBC News from appointing Stephanie Ruhle as its chief business correspondent in January.

None of that has crimped CNBC’s performance.  NBCUniversal gets more per month in subscriber fees out of CNBC than it does MSNBC, according to market-research firm Kagan, even though MSNBC has a bigger audience. CNBC is seen generating around $720 million in revenue from advertising and distribution in 2020, according to Kagan, part of S&P Global Intelligence, compared with around $295 million for Fox Business Network.

CNBC executives have for some time dismissed potential competition. They think Fox Business has pivoted to emphasize politics, and they feel Bloomberg TV lacks CNBC’s production values. Since early 2015, CNBC has done ad deals based on a measure of research other than Nielsen’s, removing a barometer of performance from wider scrutiny (its daytime ratings are still available to those willing to pay for it). All in all, CNBC has in the last few years been left in relative peace. People familiar with the network say its steady financials have kept corporate scrutiny at arm’s length, or at least the distance between CNBC’s Englewood NJ headquarters and NBCU’s corporate perch in New York’s Rockefeller Center.

Part of CNBC’s appeal is its familiarity. “Closing Bell” has been on the schedule since 2002. “Power Lunch” has been a staple of daytime since 1996. Yes, Ron Insana is gone, but veteran Bill Griffeth, who had been with CNBC since it was known as Financial News Network and was owned by independent operators, only formally stepped back from his duties late last year.  David Faber remains on hand, as ever, breaking scoops regularly.  The most unorthodox addition to the CNBC business-day lineup was Jim Cramer, but his convention-busting, after-the-market program “Mad Money” launched in 2004.

Even so, this has fast become an era when even the most durable TV franchise — consider the plight of Walt Disney’s ESPN — is grappling with consumer shifts beyond its control. CNBC could face challenges ahead. Kagan projects the network’s affiliate revenue will drop 8.6% to $472.4 million in 2021, compared with a projection of $516.5 this year. Ad revenue is also seen falling 7.1% to $190 million next year, compared with $204.6 million in 2020.

Santelli and other CNBC personalities have long operated with a license to vent. His 2009 on-air exhortation of the workers on a Chicago trading floor (“President Obama, are you listening?”) against the Obama administration’s plan to offer federal relief to people who could not pay their mortgages has been held up as a symbol of Tea Party dissatisfaction. He has long bickered on air with Steve Liesman, CNBC’s senior economics reporter. In March, Santelli suggested during one on-air appearance that “maybe we’d just be better off” if the entire population contracted coronavirus. He offered an on-air apology a day later.

Others have caught his fervor. In May, Kernen and Sorkin got into a shouting match on “Squawk Box” over the scope of the coronavirus toll in the U.S., with Kernen telling Sorkin, “You panicked,” and Sorkin responding: “100,000 people died, Joe, and all you did was try to help your friend the president.” Sorkin told his co-host that “every single morning on this show you abused and used your position.” The pair subsequently apologized to viewers on air.

Squabbles and sharp elbows are usually a bug of TV-news coverage, not a feature. To be sure, these sorts of flare-ups at CNBC are as uncommon as they are at its counterparts. But MSNBC has suspended people like Martin Bashir or Mark Halperin for making inflammatory comments. And criticizing a colleague on air has been reserved at other news outlets for moments like Charlie Rose’s ouster from CBS News.

Opinions are subjective, but facts are not — especially at a business-news network that relies on figures and filings from corporations subject to federal scrutiny. It’s hard to figure out how CNBC’s on-air conflagrations, which carry the tang of an old-school trading floor, might play in a newly united news organization. Executives will have to see if cultures mix or clash in the days ahead.