CNBC, With Fewer Viewers, Returns To Good Old News

At first glance, Wakeup

Call , CNBC’s new morning show, seems like just another peppy

morning-television news show. There’s an energetic male anchor, Carl

Quintanilla, and an energetic female anchor, Liz Claman. There’s a perky set

with a window to a real, live street outside. There’s discussion of the news of

the day, plus weather and some lighter moments, too.

But it’s precisely this format that makes Wakeup Call an anomaly and departure for CNBC, the network that

grew to represent the heady, everybody-wins ethos of the 1990′s bull market.

Faced with downturns in both its ratings and cultural relevance, CNBC is

turning to good old-fashioned news to help steer it through a downbeat economic

period.

“We’re just trying,” Ms. Claman said, “to make a more palatable

morning show for people to deal with a bear market.”

That CNBC would be forced to change its style is an indication of

how much the economic slide has impacted the network, which not long ago was

considered one of the hottest properties in cable television.

CNBC’s influence upon financial news-and popular investing-is

indisputable. With its loudmouth hosts, flashy graphics and regular helpings of

trading-floor inside dope, the network took a shirtsleeves-up,

hanging-around-the-watercooler approach to financial news, revolutionizing a

rather starchy, buttoned-down medium. In certain bars, CNBC even supplanted

ESPN as the channel of choice.

But CNBC’s growth period came during the boom years of the

dot-com economy. When stocks went kaput and investors panicked over their

portfolios, CNBC became less fun to watch-and as people pulled out of the

markets, it became less vital. For CNBC, the evidence of this decline lies in

the numbers: In January 2001, the network averaged 320,000 viewers; a year

later, it had fallen to 240,000-down a substantial 25 percent.

But as Mr. Quintanilla said, “You don’t stop playing if you lose.

You evolve; you change your lineup.”

Wakeup Call isn’t a

total abandonment of financial news. It’s more a combination of Good Morning America and Squawk Box , the network’s signature

program, whose start has been bumped an hour to make room for the new show. Wakeup Call is still, technically, a

business show. It’s set on the ground floor of the Nasdaq. There are live

reports on the markets from all over the world and interviews with analysts and

C.E.O.’s.

But it feels and looks like something you’d see hosted by Bryant

Gumbel, Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer, among others. “Certainly the location

lends to that feeling,” said David Friend, Wakeup

Call ‘s executive producer. Pointing to the show’s outdoor studio in

midtown, he said: “We wanted it to be broader than what CNBC is doing during

the market day.”

To execute this broader

approach, the network didn’t go outside, but turned to its own personnel. Ms.

Claman had solo-anchored CNBC’s previous morning show, Today’s Business , while Mr. Quintanilla had been the network’s

resident Wall Street Journal

reporter, appearing at the end of each business day. He was also something of a

looker; last year People deemed him

one of its  “50 most beautiful people.”

So far, Mr. Quintanilla and Ms.

Claman have established a routine in

the vein of, say, Elaine May and Mike Nichols. Mr. Quintanilla’s the straight

man here, the launching pad for Ms. Claman’s wisecracks. She’s the one with the

shtick .

“I’ve only been a full-time anchor for five days,” Mr.

Quintanilla said. “I’m not going to jump at the camera. You have to remember, I

came from print, where personality is a non-issue. I haven’t been trained to

emphasize

personality or wit. But I think I’ll find my voice over time.”

There are limits to how far CNBC will let Mr. Quintanilla and Ms.

Claman stray from financial issues, of course. And it’s not about to start

targeting non-investors-or for that matter,

the penniless viewer. Even amid the downturn, CNBC’s demographic has

remained upscale.

“It’s a program for upscale viewers,” Mr. Friend said of Wakeup Call . “That’s why we include

features like the $18 million yacht for Valentine’s Day and upscale

gifts-whatever will appeal to an upscale audience.

“We’re not going to have any turtle races,” he added. “Not that

there’s anything wrong with that.”

A bigger issue will be reestablishing viewer trust. Rightly or

wrongly, CNBC has taken some hits for promoting the

go-go dot-com era. Like a frat brother who irresponsibly pushes a pledge to

take that extra shot, the network was seen by some as encouraging home

investors to make some decisions that were, in retrospect, wrongheaded.

Though the network downplays that criticism-Mr. Friend points out

that CNBC’s David Faben and another network host, Ron Insana, were among the

first to wave the red flag concerning the meteoric rise of the markets-there

remains a kind of pall over the channel.

“A lot of people blame us,”

Mr. Quintanilla said. “A lot of people lost a lot of money-but we all did. It’s

not a CNBC issue. It might be a financial-media issue at large. But it’s

understandable for us to take a lion’s share of the criticism. We’re the most

visible.”

Ms. Claman said: “We have to be more probing, question things

more. We really have to watch stuff that comes up on the radar. This is part of

change, and if we don’t change, why should people watch us?”

Perhaps evidence of this new

approach came on Tuesday, Feb. 5, when the

pair grilled Krispy Kreme chief executive Scott Livengood. While the two

initially asked Mr. Livengood-whose stock had gone up 127 percent in the past

12 months-about his new doughnut machine, the conversation quickly turned to

the short-selling by Krispy Kreme insiders of company stock.

Mr. Livengood replied, “A lot of employees that invested in stock

many years-a few of those folks have taken some of that stock and sold it just

to repay loans and do things they have been planning to do for years and years.

But we are in this for the long term. We’re bullish on Krispy Kreme many years

to come.”

Ms. Claman responded by asking: “Is that the reason you are using

for the fact that, between you and your wife, you have sold between 400,000 and

500,000 shares lately?”

To be sure, Wakeup Call

is still taking its baby-steps. In its first week, the show registered only

56,000 households, with an actual viewership too small to measure by Nielsen.

Though that’s a 59 percent increase from the same time last month, it’s not

going to lay any kind of challenge to broadcast morning shows like GMA or Today . It will be fortunate if it can be competitive with

cable-news outlets like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

But Mr. Friend said that there remained no set timetable for the

show to succeed, and that it would be allowed to grow. Mr. Quintanilla, in the

parlance of a C.F.O., felt certain that CNBC itself could return to prominence

with the help of a familiar medicine.

“People will come back,” he said, “when the markets come back.”