Backstage Bigwigs Ron Insana, Mike Ovitz Step Into the Spotlight

CNBC talking head Ron Insana wants to be taken seriously–as an author. So does Über- agent Mike Ovitz–as a TV producer and investor. And why shouldn’t they be? The great bull market may be staggering into its eighth year, but Mr. Insana and Mr. Ovitz are both betting that America’s love affair with the markets is still going strong.

As CNBC’s Street Signs and Business Center anchor, Mr. Insana’s bald, bobbing visage beams into 73 million households. Hedge-fund giant Julian Robertson returns his phone calls. The Street’s James Cramer sings his praises. Now he has written a book–a severe, instructive small-bore tome with a please -take-me-seriously title: The Message of the Markets: How Financial Markets Foretell the Future–And How You Can Profit from Their Guidance . It is adorned with loving blurbs from Steve Rattner–”a must-read for professional and individual investors alike”–and George Soros.

As for Mr. Ovitz, well, he is no longer a mere agent. His newly formed television company, ATG, has a large–and for a manager of talent, somewhat unprecedented–investment in Fox’s highly anticipated The Street , debuting Nov. 1.

Together, these two developments would seem to suggest that, with close to 50 percent of Americans now said to be invested in the stock market, there is no better time to package and sell the idea of the markets as a cultural phenomenon to the public at large. If hundreds of thousands watch Mr. Insana on television, it follows that they should crave his investing tips. And if the stock-obsessed hordes are tuning so obsessively in to Mr. Insana and his merry band at CNBC, shouldn’t it follow as well that viewers would be drawn to Wall Street-themed prime-time drama? So go the hopes, then, of Mr. Insana and Mr.Ovitz.

It’s 3 p.m. on a mid-October Tuesday in the CNBC studio in Fort Lee, N.J. The market is plunging on heavy volume, and Mr. Insana–clean and crisp in his dress shirt (he rarely wears a jacket on air)–is getting plugged in. Literally, it seems. Wires spring from his back and snake to the floor. There is a plug in his ear. If his naked pate were not caked so thickly with makeup, it would surely shine; instead, it glows a dull yellow. Indeed, it was only two years ago that Mr. Insana ditched the toupee he had worn for his 15 previous years as an on-air personality. Hundreds of thousands watch him every day; his pronouncements are known to move stocks now and again. Let Marv Albert wear the rug; Mr. Insana’s got gravitas. And as the public face of CNBC, he can afford to bare all.

On the set, Mr. Insana goes through his paces with speed and dispatch–a perfunctory interview with a magazine editor; a quick cut to an obscure money manager in L.A. He is robotic and efficient, a bit bloodless even–cutting people off when they run on.

The Dow continues to swoon–bright-red market-curb signs flare up on studio screens. It’s time for some gallows humor. Squawk Box star Joe Kernen–who mans a console not far from Mr. Insana’s sparkly round desk–jumps up and yells across the studio: “Hey Ron, do you do dinner theater?” and then breaks into song: “I’ve gotta dance … I’ve got my ass in a sling.” Mr. Insana’s grin is thin. He lacks the earthy, relentlessly ironic spirit that has made Mr. Kernen–with his big hair and locker-room swagger–a cable pop hero (Mr. Kernen appears on the wildly popular early-morning market chat show with his colleague, David Faber). His gaze shifts quickly down to his sheaf of neatly stacked notes.

Is it that Mr. Kernen’s ribbing cuts too close to the bone? Not really. CNBC and Ron Insana’s career both are booming; he will not be singing for his dinner any time soon. Up or down for the market, no matter–people will continue to tune in to listen to Mr. Insana every day. But Mr. Kernen may be onto something. Ten years ago he himself was a down-on-his luck retail stock broker going through a divorce and looking for a career change. It was a bear market, but Mr. Insana hired him anyway at FNN (Financial News Network), the now-extinct cable TV station.

At the time, Mr. Insana was no less obscure: He was then a fresh-faced anchor for a TV show on the markets that hardly anyone watched. Months later, FNN was hoovered up by CNBC, and Mr. Kernen and Insana were hired. The great bull market soon commenced, and Mr. Insana, as a ubiquitous markets anchor, and Mr. Kernen, with his early-bird Squawk Box show (which premiered in 1995), became the semi-celebrities they are today.

Which is not to say that Mr. Insana–who grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Buffalo–has not paid his dues. “I’ve been doing this for 16 years–it hasn’t been all of a sudden. It takes time to build a personal business,” he says in a television-bedecked CNBC office. “I came into the markets knowing nothing. Should I apologize for all the studying that I have done on my own?” Surely not. Like many people these days who follow the markets very closely (he starts his day by poring over six newspapers), Mr. Insana is indeed well informed. He is up on all the jargon; he knows a lot of the major players. “Stanley Druckenmiller comes on the show all the time,” he says eagerly. “Same with Julian Robertson. John Kenneth Galbraith, too. I get to talk to the greats in the game. They explain things–you can’t get that with an M.B.A.”

Sure, he is an anchorman–but it’s not the weather he’s talking about here, it’s the stock market. Long-Term Capital, the Asian crisis. Mr. Insana knows this stuff cold, and that gives him pride.

“When Long-Term Capital collapsed in 1998, you had to figure out how to explain to people that this started with the Asian crisis, went through the Russian crisis and created an economic debacle the likes of which we have not seen–all based on bets on the bond market. This is some of the most complex stuff I’ve ever seen. Now, how do you tell that story here, on the Today Show , the nightly news? It’s a challenge.”

Quite so–wrapping Katie Couric’s brain around some of the finer points of bond arbitrage is no small feat. So why not write a book?

It’s the kind of thing you can do in the middle (dare we say tail end?) of a bull market. The thesis need not be startlingly original, either. Like its author, The Message of the Markets is earnest (if not a bit striving) in tone. There are a lot of charts and some decent recaps of past market events. Not to mention a snappy disquisition on the yield curve. The main point: that markets carry a message that savvy investors may perhaps discern.

“The markets do have some intrinsic value beyond being a place to invest; they are sending out signals every day,” Mr. Insana gravely explains. “The professionals I know are using the markets to get a heads-up on what’s going on in the future. I don’t think the general population fully appreciates the extent to which the markets can help plan their financial future.”

So what is the message? “You don’t have to be blindsided by the markets if you listen to them.”

A fair point to be sure. Mr. Insana is smart, self-taught and now, as CNBC continues to seep into the popular culture, he is a celebrity of sorts. Try eating your dessert in peace these days in Little Italy if you are Ron Insana. So let him write his book–the market is hot, and so is he. Prudential Securities market strategist Ralph Acampora also has a book out; Goldman’s Abby Cohen has one in the works. Everyone, it seems, is cashing in. So if TV anchors can write decently selling how-to-invest books– Message of the Markets hit 1,842 on Amazon last week–shouldn’t television be able to dramatize Wall Street?

Mike Ovitz certainly hopes so. If you think Mr. Insana is making a bet with his book, that’s small change compared to the outsized bet Mr. Ovitz’s new television group, Artists Television Group (ATG), is making on Fox’s new prime-time offering, The Street . Sources in Hollywood say–and a spokesperson for ATG confirms–that together with the $10 million-plus paid up front to Darren Star, the show’s executive producer (as part of an exclusive three-year deal that includes The Street and Grosse Pointe ), Mr. Ovitz’s ATG is on the hook for another $605,000 or so per show. With Fox having bought 13 shows, that makes for another $7.9 million. It’s the kind of risky wager that would make the pedal-to-the metal traders so lovingly featured on The Street proud.

But Mr. Ovitz’s money is real. So you bet he was at the screening and the swank downtown bash that followed at Eugene’s last week, gliding wraith-like through the glittering swarm–his glasses horn-rimmed, his suit a basic blue, his hair a touch thin. (Shouldn’t his shoes be shinier? This is Mike Ovitz, after all, not some mid-level commercial banker.)

There is no entourage; no crowd follows. People give Mike Ovitz his space. Save for Joe Kernen, that is–he is invading it. He doesn’t watch a lot of TV, but his wife loves Darren Star’s Sex and the City , so she dragged him to the screening of The Street . And he couldn’t believe his eyes: All these guys in the show, hanging out on the trading floor watching some decidedly- not -CNBC show on TV. So he went straight up to Mr. Ovitz (addressing him as “Mr. Ovitz,” of course) and complained: It’s just not realistic.

Mr. Ovitz agreed. As it turns out, he is a fan of the show–he watches every morning (early: Squawk Box airs from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. E.S.T.) from his perch on a stationary bike. They bond, then Mr. Ovitz gives Mr. Kernen his business card and they go their separate ways.

“Another thing, too,” Mr. Kernen adds as he bellies up to the bar. “All that about Ivygene opening down and then closing so strong [a scene in The Street where an I.P.O. opens weakly and roars to a stupendous close]: That was a bit of a stretch.”

But hey, that’s Hollywood. The markets are soaring, Mike Ovitz is a fan–maybe it’s time for Mr. Kernen himself to write a book. Indeed, shouldn’t it be Joe Kernen, with his rapier wit and cult following, and not Ron Insana with the book deal? “I’ve been thinking about it,” Mr. Kernen says. “The time is certainly right. My agent wants me to do it. Ron is doing it; he is going on a book tour. It would raise my profile.” He pauses. “But I remember college: I hated writing papers. A whole book? They would have to pay me a lot of money–right now I’d rather play golf.”