Was last week the worst one in CNBC’s 20-year history — or the best?
The financial news network, a unit of NBC Universal, was savaged by “The Daily Show” in a viral video sensation. It was criticized for being too cozy with the corporations it covers. One of its stars, Jim Cramer, was ridiculed by the White House press secretary. And one of its reporters faced a new round of criticism for an on-air outburst about mortgage “losers.”
All the while, CNBC covered the incessant downward slide of the economy with special reports on particularly bad days for the markets. Mr. Cramer, the host of “Mad Money,” barely had time for his usual shuffleboard games at the Elk’s Lodge near his home.
The lodge “is a booyah-free zone,” he said, using his trademark exclamation. “I was not able to get away from the booyahs this week.”
Whether the attention is positive or negative, it is certain that this tumultuous financial season is CNBC’s reason for being. One month shy of its 20th anniversary, CNBC is being jokingly called “the recession network” within the halls of its headquarters in New Jersey.
After it achieved record ratings last fall, the network’s audience remains above its annual average average. But CNBC’s executives and hosts seem well aware that their ratings have traditionally stagnated in down times for the Dow. “People do not want to come to a show each night and hear how poor they are,” Mr. Cramer said.
But in a change from previous downturns, CNBC is now a place for politics, to borrow a phrase from its sister channel MSNBC. The network’s journalists have been encouraged to speak their minds, making the line between reporter and commentator almost indistinguishable at times.
“When they are all sitting around the table it’s hard to tell a business pundit versus a reporter,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
For instance, Larry Kudlow, a conservative economist who is considering a run for the United States Senate, is the co-host of an 11 a.m. news hour. Three CNBC employees, who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said that the role of opinion on the channel had been a subject of frequent discussion.
With economic attention focused on Washington, the network is spending less time on bullish stock picks and more time assessing the government’s actions.
In recent weeks some have perceived the network to be leading the campaign against President Obama’s economic agenda. Mr. Cramer, who calls himself a lifelong Democrat, said last week that the administration’s agenda was “destroying the life savings of millions of Americans.” One week earlier Mr. Kudlow declared that Mr. Obama was “declaring war on investors, entrepreneurs, small businesses, large corporations, and private equity and venture capital funds.”
Those investors and businessmen, of course, are CNBC’s core audience. What some critics have characterized as a “war on wealth” could affect the network’s brand because the moneyed class makes up much of its core audience.
Partisanship aside, this is CNBC’s equivalent of a war. Just as the first cable news channel, CNN, rose to prominence during the gulf war in 1991, and another one, the Fox News Channel, became a ratings leader in the period before the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, CNBC is on a war footing. Last Monday, when the Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index reached 12-year lows, the network produced a special report from 8 to 11 p.m.
CNBC’s moment in the spotlight has actually lasted nearly two years. An analysis of Nielsen ratings shows that the network’s home audience started to surge in August 2007 as the upheaval began in the credit markets. They peaked in March 2008 when Bear Stearns was sold to JPMorgan Chase in a deal arranged by Washington.
After hitting a plateau that spring, the ratings soared last fall when other investment banks collapsed, setting records for the network.
In the first two months of 2009, CNBC averaged 282,000 home viewers at any given time, up from 264,000 in the same period in 2008 and 233,000 in the same period in 2007. CNBC’s chief competitors, Bloomberg and the Fox Business Network, are not publicly rated by Nielsen. CNBC says the Nielsen ratings undercounts its audience, as they do not measure out-of-home viewership on trading floors and offices. (CNBC and The New York Times have a content sharing agreement.)
Asked in a telephone interview about CNBC’s time in the spotlight Friday, the network’s president, Mark Hoffman, said it was a “unique time for the organization.”
“It has certainly received a lot more notoriety, and along with that a lot more audience,” he said.
He acknowledged that the notoriety has both “benefits and liabilities.” Twice in the last month, the White House has chastised CNBC’s personalities, first after the reporter Rick Santelli energetically expressed his opposition to Mr. Obama’s housing plans on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. CNBC eagerly promoted the segment and conservatives seized on it, holding “tea party” protests across the country.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, dismissed Mr. Santelli’s arguments and offered him a decaffeinated cup of coffee. Later, the “Today” show co-host Matt Lauer clashed with Mr. Santelli over the assertion that Mr. Gibbs had threatened the reporter.
CNBC came up at Mr. Gibbs’s briefing again last week after Mr. Cramer accused Mr. Obama of causing “the greatest wealth destruction I have seen by a president.” Mr. Gibbs said that “if you turn on a certain program, it’s geared to a very small audience, no offense to my good friends or friend at CNBC.”
Still, the headlines about CNBC are a testament to its relevance. On Wednesday, Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, spent eight minutes skewering CNBC after Mr. Santelli backed out of an interview on the show. Mr. Stewart played video clips from the network of faulty predictions about the economic crisis.
“If I had only followed CNBC’s advice, I’d have a million dollars today,” Mr. Stewart said, “provided that I’d started with $100 million.”
Mr. Stewart echoed the criticism that CNBC suffered after the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, namely that the network had acted as a booster for the markets.
When the CNBC anchor Erin Burnett appeared on “Real Time With Bill Maher” on HBO on Friday, Mr. Maher raised a similar issue. “This is the channel that Wall Street watches all day,” Mr. Maher said. “I think this is more than a channel; I think it affects what happens on Wall Street. Why didn’t anybody there predict what was going to happen?”
Ms. Burnett said that the dot-com bubble was predicted, too. “It’s easy to say ‘a bubble.’ You don’t know when it’s going to burst,” she said, adding that the questions of timing and magnitude were missed by many financial experts.
Separately, in a telephone interview Friday, the “Squawk Box” co-host Joe Kernen said of the market turmoil, “Ask yourself whether you really think it’s CNBC that caused it, or was it the housing bubble that caused it? I think we know what caused it.”
CNBC is a boon to NBC Universal’s bottom line; it has posted record profits for at least the last three years, and Mr. Hoffman says the first quarter of 2009 has been “very strong” for the network.
Mr. Cramer acknowledged he might have a harder time holding onto viewers in a bear market. To attract viewers he said he would continue to make “Mad Money” entertaining, and that means more predictions, even when they can be used against him by comedians like Mr. Stewart later.
“If I get gun-shy, then I’m not going to be relevant,” he said.