Are Financial News Networks Crashing? … Is Dr. Laura Dirty? … Do Life-Saving Manatees Make Good TV?

Wednesday, Jan. 4

It’s starting to look a little ugly. Earnings are down, stocks are sinking and layoffs are on the rise. People are using the dreaded R-word with alarming frequency.

As the American economy slows, what does it portend for the world of television financial news? No development better signified the late-90’s stock-market boom more than the exponential growth of business chatter on the tube. Once the domain of stuffy financiers and cobweb-covered analysts, financial news went decidedly downtown in recent years as flashy business networks stuffed the airwaves with loudmouthed, experts happy to harangue the country’s growing legion of individual investors. From CNBC to CNNfn to Bloomberg and beyond, watching financial news became the country’s latest pop culture fix, a phenomenon akin to Monday Morning Football .

But with a recession looming, what’s going to happen to the nation’s biz-news lovefest? Will people still want to fix their eyeballs on the Big Kahuna et al. as their portfolios plunge like the Lusitania ? Or is bad news just as compelling as it was to watch your tech stocks shoot through the roof in ’99?

The early indications are that people are still hooked–for now. Even though it began on a massive roll, 2000 was a lousy year overall as the bottom pretty much fell out of the tech market and the nation’s dot-com euphoria joined Bambi’s mother. Still, the viewers were there–in record numbers, in fact. “Nasdaq had a terrible year, the Dow Jones industrial average was down, the S.&P. was down, so this was a down year–and CNBC had its best year ever,” said the cable channel’s spokesman, Paul Capelli.

Similar improvements were reported elsewhere. For at least this year, it seemed, viewers kept coming back to television’s financial news outlets, perhaps to see how bad things were getting. “Business and financial news are quite important during booming times as well as more anxious times,” said Shelby Coffey III, the president of CNNfn and CNN business news.

But 2000 was a transitional, turbulent year. What’s unclear is how a major, long-term economic downturn would affect the performance of these networks. After all, most of these operations weren’t around the last time the country was in a major recession. It remains to be seen whether audiences will be interested in financial news during an extended climate in which good news is in short supply and optimism is scarce.

A recession could also change the tenor of such news. The talking heads on financial news programs are, almost as a rule, enthusiastic. The wildly popular CNBC made its mark with its energetic analysts and the excitable pace of its programming, neither of which appeared out of place during a time when Amazon was trading over 100 and twentysomething executives were shooting Nerf guns from the windows of their Ferraris. But can that enthusiasm be sustained in a bear market, or will it just seem inappropriate, like a funeral director with an attack of the giggles?

Network executives naturally think these shows will continue to be relevant if things keep going south. Part of the responsibility during a downturn, they say, is to keep viewers from panicking. “We feel [viewers] will be coming to us continuously now, because they want more direction and information about how to manage their money going forward through what could be some tough times,” said Katherine Oliver, Bloomberg Radio and Television’s general manager.

Indeed, with audiences anxious, some executives believe that a tough market brings with it an added responsibility for financial journalists. “No one complains about misinformation when stocks are going up,” said Bob Leverone, the vice president of television for CBS Marketwatch.com. “They only complain when it goes down. So the answer is that we should always be responsible, but the fact of the matter is that people don’t sue brokerage firms or question the validity of news networks when everything is going up.”

Mr. Leverone expects financial news outlets to change their approaches somewhat during a recession, since viewers won’t be so eager just to stare at numbers on the screen. “Now, looking at numbers is a little depressing,” he said. “So as a result, I think they will be interested in other kinds of stories.”

But for pure audience entertainment, it will be tough to match the appeal of those gold-rush stories from ’98, ’99 and the early part of 2000. Today’s financial news, by and large, isn’t so good. Can it sustain a large enough audience–especially if viewers are losing money and, in some cases, their jobs?

“It’s always exciting to tell all of the stories about how people are making money,” said Ms. Oliver. “We have had all of these dot-com millionaires over the last few years and it’s very, very sexy to tell the stories about the big, huge bonuses on Wall Street. But the reality is, over the last of couple of weeks, what have we been reporting on? Bradlees going out of business, Montgomery Ward going out of business. These stories are really affecting people’s lives, and it’s a very emotional thing.”

Maybe it’s the medium, but TV’s financial news execs sound a tad bullish about reporting on the bears. “I don’t think that it’s going to diminish our viewers and people are going to say, ‘The party’s over’ and switch off,” said Ms. Oliver. “I think they really are going to be looking for more information and insight from the professionals on what to do now. Because they are going to be worried and scared.”

Join the party (the wake?) this morning on the strangely addictive Squawk Box . [CNBC, 15, 7 a.m.]

Thursday, Jan. 4

For years, Dr. Laura Schlessinger–avowed champion of single-income families and teen virginity, enemy of abortion and homosexuality–has scorched AM radio listeners with her unique blend of fire and brimstone. She rates a close second to Rush. But when Paramount announced that they were giving Dr. Laura her own TV show, practically every gay- and women’s-rights group went bonkers.

Despite loud protests, Dr. Laura finally made it on the air this fall. But after an afternoon slot proved unsuccessful, the show was moved to 2:05 a.m. The irony is sweet: At that witching hour, Dr. Laura must dispense her wholesome-lifestyle philosophy to an audience with a disproportionate number of boozers, drug-sniffers and Robin Byrd-watchers.

But Dr. Laura’s radio show, which is on in the afternoon, would have been perfect for late-night TV. It’s dirty. Just listen in on the following repartee:

Caller: “I have Herpes A and B, and I was just wondering if I should tell my boyfriend of two weeks. We’ve been having sex and using condoms and all, but I’m afraid I might give it to him.”

Dr. Laura: “You’re despicable. I can’t believe you’ve been screwing around with some guy you’ve only known for a week.”

In her TV purgatory, however, Dr. Laura looks medicated and sounds declawed. She chats with sleepy guests on such inane topics as whether to keep a promise, or whom to blame when a child misbehaves. She puts the latter question to a few people on the street before revealing the right answer (blame both the parent and the child, it turns out). She putters around the stage, kibitzing before a hushed studio audience. No one’s a “slut.” No one’s even “despicable.” She tries so hard not to offend that it’s offensive.

By the show’s end, everyone’s friends. And the viewers are placidly asleep. [WCBS, 2, 2:05 a.m.]

–Ian Blecher

Friday, Jan. 5

CBS has a surprise hit on its hands with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation , which is a new drama about the people who show up after grisly murders and analyze blood stains and semen traces and creepy things like that. The unspoken little secret behind this show’s success, of course, is that it’s on at 9 p.m. on Friday nights, when there are a lot of–how shall we say this?– single gentlemen sitting at home who are interested in blood stains and semen traces and creepy things like that. [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]

Saturday, Jan. 6

Tonight’s episode of Miracle Pets features two–count ‘em, two!–segments featuring companion animals that helped alert their owners to fires in their homes. In another segment, a manatee nurses another manatee back to health after a boating accident. This show rocks. Stay home and hug your dog. [WPXN, 31, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, Jan. 7

This afternoon at 4:15 at the Meadowlands, the New York Football Giants try to pluck the Philadelphia Eagles in the N.F.L. playoffs. (Give the damn ball to Tiki, our man from WCBS, that’s all we have to say!) That’s on Fox. Later, all of America gathers to celebrate its creative community on The People’s Choice Awards . [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]

Monday, Jan. 8

CNN superstar Greta Van Susteren, you were just so fab during that election mess that we’ve decided to give you your very own prime-time show–at least until we figure out what’s wrong with this wacky news network and change everything again. It’s called The Point with Greta Van Susteren , and it’s not to be confused with The Edge with Paula Zahn , The Grind with Eric Nies or The Party Machine with Nia Peeples . [CNN, 10, 8:30 p.m.]

Tuesday, Jan. 9

Who is “The Mole”? Tonight, ABC premieres The Mole , its new entry into the reality-TV series sweepstakes. In this hammy show, a group of contestants try to complete a task and win money, but they’re hassled by a saboteur (“The Mole”) from the network. On other shows, “The Mole” is simply called the “executive producer.” [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]