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As Markets Yo-Yo, CNBC Steadily Rises

Television * The dizzying Dow and nail-biting Nasdaq bring more (and more affluent) viewers to the chart-rich cable network.

April 24, 2001|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PHILADELPHIA — Mary Johnson has a long day ahead of her, but right now it's 6 a.m. and that means it's StairMaster time. She's in from Chicago for business and has a day pass at the Sporting Club, this city's toniest gym.

But as she puffs and sweats up those simulated staircases, her eyes are transfixed on the soundless TV above her. Half a dozen other TVs in the vast room filled with early-morning workout folk on sophisticated machines have on the same network: CNBC. Charts of all types are flitting past.

"MSFT 300 @ 55.63" floats by in red. "S&P Futures 1.40" is there with a green up arrow. Oil prices by the barrel-full flash on in white.

"I've got to have my CNBC fix," she says. "It's the background music, the Muzak, if you will, for the business life."

And as the financial markets flip around like a fresh-caught flounder on the dock, CNBC's viewership has burgeoned. The Nasdaq may be down 52% since Sept. 1, 2000, but in that same time period, the cable financial news network's Nielsen ratings are up about 30%, and scenes such as the one at the Sporting Club are being played out in cities nationwide.

As the Dow Jones industrial average hit its lows for the last two years the week of March 19, CNBC's audiences hit all-time highs.

Granted, those CNBC Nielsen numbers are not humongous by major-network standards, reaching 489,000 households last Monday, which is about how many people miss the $100 question on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." But this audience hardly needs Regis' money. According to a survey commissioned by CNBC and done by Mendelsohn Media Research Inc., regular watchers of CNBC average $1.14 million in net worth.

That means they do their shvitzing in places like the Sporting Club and their lunching in upscale places like Cutters, a high-windowed hangout for lawyers and the like a block from the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, where CNBC is regularly seen on the TVs by the expansive bar.

And it means that they are apparently insatiable when it comes to getting financial news, especially when the markets are moving as rapidly as they have been lately. But there are some critics who think CNBC is hyping those moves.

The cable channel's shows can terrify "the general public, who does not understand half of what [the CNBC commentators] are talking about," said Fred Sherman, a financial commentator on KYW-AM, Philadelphia's all-news radio station. "For a long time, they were extremely positive. Now they are negative. I have to watch because it is my business, but I can't stand the programs where, every 30 seconds, the Dow is in bad territory. If they don't dramatize it, they can't get ratings."

Martin Kaplan, the associate dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication, concurs.

"The purpose of television networks is to sell eyeballs to advertisers. Any other purpose is ancillary," said Kaplan. "Informing an educated citizenry is an appropriate role, but it is wholly discretionary. And if saying the sky is falling will get people's attention, some people may do that.

"It may be finance, but it is also entertainment and CNBC's job is to keep you watching," he added. "They do a good job of it, at least for 490,000 people."

Those at CNBC, if not exactly taking offense, think it is somewhat laughable that they have hyped either the market run-up of the 1990s or the downswing of late.

"There is no question the run-up of the bull market made financial news more relevant to more people, and that helped us," said Bruno Cohen, senior vice president of business news at CNBC. "Frankly, one of the things we have done is that when the market was going up, part of what we did was sound a cautionary message. Now that it's going down, we give a reverse message, that you should not necessarily be selling.

"Look, this is still a relatively new program service. We have been evolving our skills and techniques," Cohen said. "We have a long way to go, and we have an audience of essentially affluent viewers. I think they would see through it if we hyped everything."

Not everything on CNBC is dry numbers and predictions of which semiconductor maker or drug company will be the next market darling. The morning show, "Squawk Box," anchored by Mark Haines, can be as wry and entertaining as any morning chat show. After all, on the East Coast, it has to compete with "The Today Show" early on and "Live With Regis and Kelly" in its last hour. (In fact, Regis Philbin is a confirmed CBNC-aholic, which may well account for the tryout CNBC reporter Maria Bartiromo had as Philbin's co-host last year.)

On "Squawk Box," for instance, one of the ongoing features is the Greenspan Briefcase Index. Each time Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan walks into a Fed meeting, CNBC takes video. If his briefcase is overflowing, it generally means a rate change will come out of the meeting; if it is thin, no change is expected.

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