In a year of economic turmoil, cable TV’s financial channels might have seemed poised to benefit from the national attention on money matters, but the results were mixed for CNBC, Fox Business Network (FBN) and Bloomberg Television in 2009. CNBC’s ratings and revenues were mostly flat. Its distant competitor Fox Business Network saw sharp gains in advertising sales, at least proportionally, although the channel remained in the red. Bloomberg Television continued to attract an elite core audience but was forced to make its first round of layoffs since the channel’s 1981 founding.
The other niche of cable news, internationally based channels, continued to struggle in gaining traction in U.S. subscriber-TV markets. BBC World News showed signs of growth, but was still only available in about 3 million households. France 24 and Al Jazeera English continued to be more accessible on the Web than on American television screens.
Another specialty channel, Current TV, was forced to lay off a quarter of its staff, and began to retool its program strategy.
The major player in cable financial news was still CNBC, followed by Bloomberg TV and Fox Business Network (FBN).
All are operations of major companies with other substantial media interests, and each in some ways has a different model for how it fits into the larger media strategy of the company.
CNBC had the largest television audience. Bloomberg, an offshoot of the business news empire, had the most journalistic resources to draw on but operated the channel as a television extension of its data and online products. FBN, with the fewest resources, was still in its early stages of building the channel.
Key Players at a Glance, 2009
Sources: SNL Kagan, a division of SNL Financial LLC; 2009 Mendelsohn Affluent Survey; Bloomberg Bureaus aggregated on October 22, 2009, from bloomberg.com; management information taken from Hoover’s; Other data from respective channel websites.
CNBC remained the dominant financial news channel — both in overall audience and earnings — in 2009. But it was a year marked by declining ratings, stagnant profits, and controversy.
The high point of CNBC’s recent history may have come and gone in the fall of 2008. The day after Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy, September 16, 2008, the channel averaged 488,000 daytime viewers (5 a.m. to 7 p.m.).3 But by June 2009, that number was nearly halved.
- CNBC’s average daytime viewership, the key day part for business news, in June 2009 (264,000 viewers) dropped 11.4% from June 2008 (298,000 viewers).4
- By December 2009, the channel’s average daytime audience was even lower, hovering at 233,000 viewers.5
- For the year, CNBC’s median daytime viewership was 275,500.6
Financial news channels tend to have a smaller core audience, with many viewers tuning in at work. At times of financial panic, these audiences grow exponentially, only to subside along with the crisis that precipitated the surge. Amid the panic, the on-air conduct of CNBC’s hosts and correspondents caused controversy.
One such episode involved on-air editor Rick Santelli. On February 19, 2009, Santelli, reporting from the floor of the Chicago trading center, delivered a critical diatribe on the Obama administration’s mortgage bailout, which aired live on Squawk Box, a “ ‘pre-market’ morning news and talk program.” The impromptu speech drew an indirect rebuke from President Obama himself.
Another host who found himself in public controversy during the year was Jim Cramer. Cramer had made a name for himself by mixing strident financial advice with showmanship on his prime-time CNBC program, Mad Money. On March 12, 2009, Comedy Central’s Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, skewered Cramer during an on-set interview. Stewart accused Cramer and CNBC of participating in the swindling of average investors. “[Insider trading] is a game that you know is going on,” Stewart said, “but you go on television as a financial network and pretend it isn’t happening.”
CNBC remained the leader among financial channels. Its profits were more than double that of its sister cable channel, MSNBC, and was projected to show a nearly 50% profit margin. The channel’s strength on relatively small viewership attests to the power a small but affluent audience can hold. CNBC was, however, projected to see no revenue growth in 2009, and a decline in total profit. A challenging advertising environment was partly responsible. The financial industry that advertises on CNBC, and which the channel also covers, was hard hit by the recession.
- CNBC’s total revenues were projected to remain flat in 2009 at $663 million (advertising revenue was down 9%).7
- The channel’s profit was projected to decline 4% to $370 million in 2009, from $387 million in 2008.
The channel’s investment in the news was projected to increase 6% to $293 million, up from $277 million in 2008. This came despite losing some talent (Dylan Ratigan, Margaret Brennan) to other channels.
Although CNBC is a subsidiary of NBC Universal, it is unclear what changes, if any, the deal to sell it to Comcast would bring to the channel (See Ownership for more on the sale).
Fox Business Network
Two years after its launch, Fox Business Network (FBN) was projected to grow revenue faster than its rivals despite its failure to substantially increase viewership.
FBN’s ratings are measured by Nielsen, but partly because they are so small, the figures are not publicly released. Some hints about the channel’s audience emerged throughout the year, which indicated that FBN, like CNBC, saw a spike during the peak of the recession news cycle, but then drifted back to earlier levels.
- July 2008: The Washington Post reported that the network averaged around 8,000 daytime and 20,000 prime-time viewers in the first few weeks of that month.8
- March 2009: The Hollywood Reporter obtained information from the channel stating it averaged about 40,000 viewers that month.9
- June 2009: The New York Times reported that FBN was averaging 21,000 viewers during its “business day” of 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.10
While these figures are incomplete, and some come straight from the channel, they do offer a sense of FBN’s performance from the months before until the months after the 2008 financial crisis.
FBN’s audience is a fraction of CNBC’s, roughly one-fifteenth of its size. The channel increased its carriage on cable systems throughout the country (in 2009, FBN was available in 50 million households, just half of the 99 million households that can access CNBC).11
FBN’s own financial indicators were strong in 2009
- Total revenues were projected to grow 33% to $96 million in 2009, up from $72 million in 2008 (ad revenues were projected to increase 44%).
- The channel was expected to reduce its losses in 2009 by 32%, but remained in the red with a loss of $32 million.
FBN also increased its investment in the news by 8%, slightly more than either CNBC or Bloomberg Television. although its base was small to begin with. In April, the channel began broadcasting from a new studio, bigger and more high-tech than its old one.12
New talent on the channel added to its expenses, too. In September, it recruited John Stossel from ABC News to work for both FBN and Fox News. On October 5, former MSNBC “shock jock” Don Imus, who had been fired for making racially offensive comments, launched a new morning show on FBN, even though his speciality is not financial news and the timeslot in the hours before trading begins is crucial for financial coverage (more on his 2007 firing). But the channel lost a key figure when Alexis Glick, vice president of business news and host of Opening Bell, left FBN at the end of December to pursue an undisclosed new opportunity.
Bloomberg Television has more journalistic resources to draw on than its competitors and displays them with less flashiness. Although it saw a slight dip in advertising revenue, Bloomberg Television ended the year with strong profit growth and signs, too, that it was trying to expand beyond its core elite audience.
Available in an average of 53 million households in 2009, Bloomberg Television suffers from the same reach problem as FBN. Its actual viewership is difficult even to estimate, because the channel is not measured by Nielsen. While Bloomberg Television probably retains a very small audience, survey data indicate it is an elite one. Among households earning $100,000 or more, Bloomberg Television attracts the wealthiest ($237,632 household income, on average) as compared to CNBC ($202,928) and FBN ($198,353).13
Bloomberg Television entered 2009 on an ominous note, with a February announcement that 100 jobs would be cut, the first in the channel’s history since the founding of Bloomberg LP in 1981. According to New York Observer reporter Felix Gillette, Bloomberg’s head of TV news programming, David Rhodes, filled the void by placing off-air news people in front of the cameras.14
Rhodes was able to attract at least one anchor, though, when he signed Margaret Brennan, who had been a general assignment reporter for CNBC.
Between staff cuts, new hires, and other expenses related to news gathering, Bloomberg Television was projected to increase its spending by only 1% in 2009.
The channel was also expected to finish 2009 with a strong profit.
- Bloomberg Television’s total revenues were projected to grow 4% to $99 million in 2009, up from $95 million in 2008 (ad revenues were projected to decrease 4%).
- The channel’s profit was projected to grow 21% to $23 million in 2009, up from $19 million in 2008.
Bloomberg’s president, Dan Doctoroff, had hinted in 2008 that he would be interested in acquiring other properties. In the fall of 2009, Bloomberg bought BusinessWeek.15 In October, Bloomberg and the Washington Post Company announced a new partnership in which they would distribute some of their content to other news organizations.16
Other specialty news channels, including several with an international perspective, made incremental progress (at best) with the American audience.
BBC World News
BBC World News, the British Broadcasting Corp.’s 24-hour news channel, is broadcast in more than 200 countries but has struggled to gain a toehold in the American market, where it has been available since 2006.
In 2009, BBC World News was projected to reach 2.5 million households, up from 1 million in 2008. This is still only a fraction of the reach achieved by other cable news channels, though. BBC World News is available in the New York City metropolitan area (Cablevision), northern Virginia (Cox Communications) and Texas (Grande Communications), as well as other locations throughout the country via Verizon FiOS.
In April 2009, the entertainment-heavy BBC America channel dropped its three-hour simulcast of BBC World News morning bulletins. At the same time, it announced it had dropped its Newsnight program (a decision made in November of 2008). This came after some PBS stations in April 2008 decided to drop their broadcast of BBC World News bulletins, too.
Despite weak carriage, BBC World News looked to more than double its revenues in 2009. Still, though, the young channel would still see no profit by the end of the year.
- BBC World News’ total U.S. revenues were projected to grow 117% to $1.3 million in 2009, up from $600,000 in 2008.
- Its expenses were projected to increase 12% to $3.8 million in 2009, up from $3.4 million in 2008.
- The channel cut its losses 10% to a loss of $2.6 million in 2009, a $2.9 million loss in 2008.
France’s international news channel remained available in the United States in 2009, despite threats by the French president to pull the plug, but it has failed to attract widespread viewership.
The news channel, launched in 2006, was originally aimed at a French audience. But in 2007 it tried to challenge BBC World and CNN by launching the English-language version, which was made available to American audiences via cable and satellite. As of 2009, it was only available on cable systems based in New York and Washington. However, France 24 programming can be accessed through a streaming portal on its website.
At its launch, the channel had 390 employees worldwide and 180 journalists, but has since grown to well over 520 staff, including 260 journalists.
AJE broadcasts from four centers — Doha, in Qatar; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; London, and Washington.18 According to the website iwantaje.com, the channel has more than 69 bureaus around the world, as well as more than 1,200 employees.
In October 2009, AJE announced it had launched a blogging network, a forum to allow its correspondents all over the world to interact with issues they care about and with their audiences on a more personal level.19 The launch was the first major initiative of Mohamed Nanabhay, who took the reins of AJE’s online media department.
The year 2009 was one of challenges and changes at Current TV.
On November 11, the channel announced it was laying off 80 members of its staff, equal to one quarter of its work force. The layoffs included chief of programming, David Neuman.20 This followed an announcement in April that Current Media, Current TV’s parent, had to cancel plans in April for an initial public offering in the face of a weak economic environment.21 The IPO would have allowed the company, and therefore its cable channel, to grow.
Admitting its strategy of filling its schedule with user-generated content was not feasible, Current also shifted its programming format. Instead of short, user-contributed “pods,” the channel would feature more half-hour and hour-long news programs. And instead of producing content in-house, the channel would look to acquire programming from others.22
Current TV is a news and entertainment channel founded by former Vice President Al Gore. Its programming is geared toward the 18-to-34-year-old demographic, and features technology, fashion, the environment, spirituality and politics, among other topics.
The channel was projected to expand its reach in 2009. It was available in an average of 54 million households, up 15% from 47 million in 2008. But this was still less than the channel had hoped to reach.
Despite the cutbacks and the programming changes, Current TV’s financial reports suggested improvement:
- Total revenues were projected to grow 17% to $89.1 million in 2009, up from $76.3 million in 2008. The majority of Current TV’s revenues are generated from subscriber fees.
- Its expenses were projected to increase 1% to $72.4 million in 2009, up from $71.9 million in 2008.
- The channel’s profit was projected to grow 280% to $16.7 million in 2009, up from $4.4 million in 2008.
Current TV found itself in the headlines in March when two of its journalists — Laura Ling and Euna Lee — were arrested by the North Korean government while reporting near the Chinese border. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. In August, North Korean President Kim Jong Il pardoned the women after former President Bill Clinton met with Kim in person and asked for their release.23
1. CNBC had its origins in the Satellite Program Network, launched in 1980, but was re-launched as the Consumer News and Business Channel in 1989.
2. CNBC also says it has a large out-of-home audience that is not captured by Nielsen, including financial professionals who watch the channel in the office (personal communication with Derek Baine, SNL Kagan analyst, January 4, 2009).
3. Rebecca Dana, “CNBC Ratings Jump Amid Turmoil,” Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2008
4. All television audience figures provided by Nielsen Media Research, used under license.
5. November viewership is for CNBC’s business day: 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.
6. CNBC data is split as follows: For January-June 2009, it is daytime (6 a.m.-6 p.m.) median viewership. For July-December 2009, it is “business day” (5 a.m.-7 p.m.) median viewership. August and December are missing.
7. All economic projections are from SNL Kagan, a division of SNL Financial LLC. Projections were published in October 2009.
8. Howard Kurtz, “Business Is Slow for Fox Channel,” Washington Post, July 26, 2008
9. Georg Szalai and Paul Bond, “Everybody’s Business,” Hollywood Reporter, April 16, 2009
10. Brian Stelter, “Fox Business Needs a Lift. Could It Be Don Imus?” New York Times, August 16, 2009
11. All cable subscription projections are from SNL Kagan, a division of SNL Financial LLC. Projections were published in August 2009.
12. Glen Dickson, “Fox Business Gets a New Look,” Broadcasting & Cable, April 20, 2009
13. 2009 Mendelsohn Affluent Survey, data obtained from Bloomberg Television.
14. Felix Gillette, “Bloomberg’s Newbie Newsies,” New York Observer, March 5, 2009
15. “Bloomberg acquires BusinessWeek,” BBC, October 13, 2009
16. Howard Kurtz, “Washington Post Will Pair With Bloomberg,” Washington Post, October 2, 2009
17. Al Jazeera English online. Retrieved on October 27, 2009
18. Al Jazeera English online. Retrieved on October 27, 2009
19. “Al Jazeera English launches new blog site,” Judith Townend, journalism.co.uk, October 12, 2009
20. Joe Flint, “Current TV’s cuts acknowledge a strategy that didn’t catch fire,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2009
21. Verne Kopytoff, “Gore’s Current Media scraps plan for IPO in face of weak economy,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 11, 2009
22. Joe Flint, “Current TV’s cuts acknowledge a strategy that didn’t catch fire,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2009
23. Mark Landler and Peter Baker, “Bill Clinton and Journalists in Emotional Return to U.S.,” New York Times, August 5, 2009