Monday, July 03, 2006
Broad Experience For a Tall Job: A Hipper CNBC

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 3, 2006; C01

When Jonathan Wald was fired as executive producer of the "Today" show, he says, "I wanted to stay in the game and get back into the daily battle."

When Josh Howard was forced to resign as executive producer of "60 Minutes II" after the botched story on President Bush and the National Guard, "I frankly wasn't sure, after my last experience, whether I wanted to work in television again."

Both men landed at CNBC, where they are helping to retool programming on a business channel that has struggled in the ratings since the dot-com bust six years ago.

Wald helped launch the 7 p.m. weeknight show "On the Money," which takes a freewheeling approach to the financial side of pop culture. Howard is preparing the fall launch of a monthly magazine show that sounds suspiciously like "60 Minutes" and producing four documentaries, some of which may run as long as two hours.

The two executives are helping to move CNBC, which fixates on stocks and bonds during the day, toward a broader definition of business coverage. And they're finding it liberating to be freed from having to deliver mass audiences for the broadcast networks.

"We don't have to do a piece on Britney Spears because we need to drag in the 18-to-49-year-olds," Howard says. "It's a huge advantage."

Since its core mission is to cover Wall Street and corporate America, CNBC's fate is tied to public interest in the markets. So executives are trying to dream up new programming that will get more people into the cable tent. "We'd like everybody who has even a passing interest in business and markets and investment," says Mark Hoffman, who took over as CNBC president last year and would face stiff competition if Fox News follows through on plans for a business channel.

Hoffman wanted the evening lineup to reflect the network's core identity. CNBC's prime time has had more than its share of failures, including shows hosted by Dennis Miller and John McEnroe, leaving the channel turning to reruns of Conan O'Brien and "The Apprentice" and looking very much out of gas.

The O'Brien repeats gave way to "On the Money," which boosted viewership by 32 percent but still reached only 141,000 viewers over the past three months. The show, hosted by Dylan Ratigan, has been covering issues involving Hollywood (why is America obsessed with weekend box office grosses?), cyberspace (NBC's alliance with the post-it-yourself video site YouTube), and global business (a piece from Russia on the seizing of a factory that makes tubes for the kind of amplifiers once used by Jimi Hendrix).

"Business news and what people are talking about need not be mutually exclusive," says Wald, now a senior vice president. With segments such as "Ka-Ching" (on who's making big bucks) and running jokes (such as calling Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke "The Bearded One"), "On the Money" brings a fast-paced sensibility to potentially dull subjects.

Unlike "Today," where he was dropped in 2002 after 16 months on the job, "it's great to start something new and not just be the latest one to be handed the keys," Wald says. But even with cable's smaller audiences, he says, "the pressure and the stakes are just as high" as at NBC.

Howard, whose first documentary involves a behind-the-scenes look at a major airline, says the model is CNBC reporter David Faber's examination of Wal-Mart, which won Peabody and DuPont awards and has aired 35 times. "One of the nice things about cable is you get to run the stuff over and over again," Howard says.

The magazine show, a blend of features, profiles and investigative work, will use some NBC reporters and "Dateline" staffers. "The pieces could look very much like '60 Minutes' pieces," says Howard, who is also developing two pilots with lighter themes. "The format works, so why reinvent it?"

Howard, a 14-year veteran of "60 Minutes," took a year off after the debacle over the National Guard story, which led to the departure of two other senior executives and the firing of Dan Rather's producer on the story, Mary Mapes. "It would have been depressing if I really felt my reputation had been ruined by this thing," Howard says.

CNBC's ratings are quite modest -- although understated, because many investors watch from their offices -- but the network remains a gold mine, generating an estimated $250 million a year in profit. That's because advertisers are willing to pony up for viewers whose median household net worth is more than $1.5 million.

After a long ratings slump, daytime business programming was up 41 percent in the last three months, to 217,000 viewers, over the same period last year. But Hoffman sounds nonchalant about the numbers, saying he's less concerned than most television executives.

"We're not a populist network," Hoffman says. "This is a niche network that is focused on a fairly narrow content area that appeals to a high-end audience."

Live From Gitmo

When the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Bush administration exceeded its authority in arranging military tribunals for terror suspects, ABC's Terry Moran was at the perfect spot: Guantanamo Bay.

The timing was coincidental -- ABC had been pressing for access to the prison for months -- but the "Nightline" co-anchor did win Pentagon approval to extend his stay by one day after learning that the closely watched case filed by a Gitmo detainee was about to be decided.

Despite the great proximity, Moran had a frustrating week and couldn't get anyone there to comment on the ruling. "It's hard to do anything here because the security situation is so intense -- getting around, getting into the camps, what you can shoot when you're in the camps," he says from the U.S. base in Cuba. In fact, military censors must clear all videotape after ensuring that no detainees can be identified.

While Moran interviewed top officials of the camp, he says the Pentagon refused access to several detainees who had agreed in writing to talk to him. "As I've told our viewers, we can only get one side of the story," he says.

Vanity Fair: Is It a Crime?

Henry Porter, Vanity Fair's London editor, had already gotten under Tony Blair's skin with a piece accusing the prime minister of using the fear of terrorism to wage an assault on civil liberties. Blair responded by conducting an e-mail debate with Porter that was published in London's Observer, where the writer has a column.

Two weeks ago a man carrying a placard with a George Orwell quote was arrested and charged with violating a law banning demonstrations within one kilometer of Parliament.

Steven Jago, who faces up to a year in jail, has said that police confiscated a copy of Porter's Vanity Fair piece, which he was carrying, and told him the article was "politically motivated material."

Says Porter, who has written a letter of complaint to the police: "The idea that a piece of journalism could be used as evidence of someone's criminal intent, when it's a mainstream journalism attack on the prime minister, it's a little step toward tyranny. That's astounding. It's frightening, really."

Falling Star

"They had done a great deal of research, and her negatives were rising.'' -- Barbara Walters to the New York Times, explaining the decision to drop Star Jones Reynolds from ABC's "The View." So politicians aren't the only ones who live and die by opinion polls?