In crisis, NBR gets calmly down to business

Scenes from a meltdown: On CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, the always-angry host bellows about “a new effort to ram a huge Wall Street bailout through Congress and down the throats of the American people.”

On Mad Money, CNBC’s hyperventilating Jim Cramer, dubbing himself “one of the best historians of the Great Depression,” rants about an “economic Pearl Harbor” and whom to blame for it. “What if after Pearl Harbor we said, ‘Forget defeating those Japanese — we gotta punish those admirals that let us down!’”

Over on Fox News Channel, Your World with Neil Cavuto is calmer, but an ominous Senate Rescue Plan Countdown Clock ticks relentlessly at the bottom of the screen.

On PBS’s Nightly Business Report, despite the worst economic turmoil in the program’s 30 years on the air, it’s business as usual. Correspondents report on the Senate’s failing effort to pass a financial-industry bailout. Bruce Josten of the Chamber of Commerce calmly warns about what business fears most — “tipping the economy into a pretty severe recession.” Rundowns of world markets and cattle futures are followed by USA Today columnist John Waggoner with tips on handling mutual-fund investments in a free-falling market. There are reports on the credit markets and businesses struggling to meet payrolls. Co-anchor Paul Kangas interviewsing financial industry elder John C. Bogel, the maverick founder of the huge Vanguard mutual funds group, who complains of congressional “pettiness.”

Nightly Business Report that night, as the economic crisis shifted into high gear, was, as always, unruffled and well-modulated — what used to be called businesslike.

“Investments are not a sport, not a game, not entertainment,” says NBR co-anchor Susie Gharib, echoing the mantra of the most resolutely serious and uncool business program on television. For 30 years now, that’s just the way NBR likes it.

The program would be called “old school” if there were an old school of business-oriented programs, but on the national scene it’s a school of one. NBR has none of the barroom-cum-SportsCenter vibe of the cable business channels and no use for the stock touts, gunslingers and blustering scolds who’ve found stardom at the competition. “Theatrics and histrionics” don’t interest Nightly Business Report’s viewers, says Rodney Ward, the program’s executive editor and senior v.p. of NBR Enterprises. “Our goal is not to entertain, but inform.”

With well-seasoned, no-frills anchors Kangas and Gharib and a straightforward style, Nightly Business Report resembles a traditional network evening newscast, but one designed for a narrower audience. While most business reporting on the networks is consumer-centric—Will you put off buying that new HDTV?—NBR is speaking to consumers who are also investors—How will your decision affect Samsung’s profits?

NBR’s mix of industry and financial news, analysis by Wall Street insiders, and daily features such as Kangas’s popular “Stocks in the News” segment aims squarely at business execs and well-informed, reasonably well-heeled individual investors who are building portfolios for retirement—“the middle-class investor clawing his or her way to financial security,” says Kangas, a former stockbroker who, like Ward, has been part of NBR since its debut. In the old days, these investors probably would stuff a portfolio with blue chips and leave it alone. But those stocks seem to have vanished, and even the believers in long-term investment must actively manage their assets.

“They want news relevant to their financial well-being,” says Ward, “so they can make better decisions about their financial lives.”

The official history of Nightly Business Report credits “several businessmen” on the board of Miami public station WPBT with the idea for a daily wrap-up of business news, which Linda O’Bryon, then WPBT’s news director, shepherded onto the air on Jan. 22, 1979. That 15-minute newscast, which O’Bryon co-anchored for a dozen years, stakes claim to being television’s first daily business-news program.

Less than a year after its start, NBR expanded to half an hour and added several new South Florida affiliates. In 1981, it went national on 125 stations via the public TV syndicator now known as American Public Television.

The 1980s were good to NBR. Economic turbulence early in Reagan’s administration, notably widespread corporate downsizing and the decline of employer retirement plans changed the game. “People realized they had to get up to date and pay attention to personal finances,” says Gharib, who joined NBR in 1998 after 20 years at Fortune, CNBC, NBC and a host of high-profile news organizations. “Bottom line,” she says, “people had to become more knowledgeable.”

That bull market didn’t last long, but what followed was even better for Nightly Business Report: As the Reagan administration gained traction, the stock market took off and a booming economy brought millions of new investors to Wall Street and millions of new viewers to NBR.

NBR wasn’t alone, of course. Other broadcasters sensed opportunity in the public’s growing interest in business and financial news, some pouring fortunes into new ventures. But not everyone invested quite as well as WPBT. During its 30 years, NBR has seen a lot of competitors leave the air, including public television’s Wall Street Week, both with and without Louis Rukeyser; several versions of CNN’s Moneyline, with and without Lou Dobbs; and business-news network pioneers the Financial News Network and CNNfn.

In its third decade, NBR faces stiff competition from slick, highly caffeinated, personality-driven shows, including CNBC’s Closing Bell, Mad Money and Fast Money; several CNN shows with a taste for money stories, including Lou Dobbs Tonight; and Fox Business Network’s Cavuto and Bulls and Bears.

Stuart Zuckerman is not impressed. “We’re still the dominant program of the genre,” says NBR’s v.p. for sales and marketing. In January and February 2008, the show pulled 595,000 average daily viewers, compared with CNBC’s big shows, Closing Bell and Mad Money, which drew 403,000 and 256,000, respectively. Even with business-show audiences booming during the big bust, he figures the fall ratings still will have NBR 30 percent ahead of Closing Bell.

But Zuckerman admits he was worried that the economic crisis would put a dent in NBR’s ratings if regular viewers turned to the broadcast networks for more general economic coverage. In many broadcast markets, NBR airs head-to-head with the broadcast nets’ evening newscasts and “the economy has been the lead story for months,” Zuckerman says. “It would not have surprised me if the ratings had fallen.” But they didn’t. Instead, NBR enjoyed a modest bump. “We’re very proud of the fact that our audience grew 15 percent in the top-25 metered markets,” Zuckerman says. “We’re still comfortably the most-watched business program.”

The show boasts healthy ratings, 250 transmitters that make the show available to 94 percent of American households, impressive viewer demographics and big-name underwriters including longtime supporter Franklin Templeton Investments, plus secondary sponsors ExxonMobil, which just re-upped for at least another six months, and newcomer Microsoft, which has signed on until mid-year or longer.

Nielsen Media Research reports that NBR’s viewers are “more affluent and better educated” than those of CNN and CNBC. And, Zuckerman says, NBR attracts 60 percent more adults in the 35-to-64 age range than CNBC’s Closing Bell or Mad Money. NBR’s audience also leads the pack in corporate chief execs, COOs, CFOs and other so-called “C-level executives.”

“It’s clear that the show is highly respected and watched by a lot of people,” says Kangas, who’s more impressed with real-world viewers than ratings. Kangas works from the show’s Miami studios and says he meets NBR fans wherever he goes. “It’s better than any Nielsen report.”

Gharib broadcasts from NBR’s studio at the New York Stock Exchange and has met and interviewed many a government and Wall Street mover and shaker—and lots of those C-level folks, too—but she, too, seems most impressed with the Nightly Business Report’s broader audience. “A wide range of people watch it,” says Gharib, struggling to pin down the “typical” NBR watcher: “A professor, a doctor, a lawyer, maybe?” she asks. “It could be a businessperson or someone in retirement.”

Whoever they are, the loyalty of NBR’s viewers may be the show’s most effective weapon against its competition. Minute-by-minute ratings show NBR’s viewership is “very flat,” says Zuckerman. “We don’t have peaks and valleys.” In other words, NBR viewers stick with the show for all 30 minutes and don’t dally with its competitors. Zuckerman says an audience analysis a couple of years ago found that nine out of 10 households that tune in for NBR don’t watch CNBC’s Closing Bell. More than three-quarters never watch anything on CNBC.

The PBS brand name helps, too, especially in attracting new viewers to Nightly Business Report. “PBS has credibility,” says Zuckerman, noting a 2007 Roper poll which named PBS, by wide margins over commercial TV and newspapers, “the most trusted source for news and public affairs.”

Although most viewers probably didn’t know it, NBR’s relationship with PBS underwent a significant backstage change in 2005 as the show ended more than two decades of syndication through APT and became part of PBS’s National Program Service.

Because PBS-member stations can air the show without paying additional fees to APT, the move helped NBR pick up new carriage and “stopped the attrition of affiliates who couldn’t afford it,” Zuckerman says. And that was in relatively good times. As the cascading effects of recession tightened the squeeze on public broadcasting and its underwriters, it may not be hyperbole to call the PBS alliance a lifesaver for NBR.

Money is always a worry, of course. One of NBR’s biggest challenges in three decades on the air could scarcely have been imagined when the show was born — the Web. As it has been for all traditional media, the Web is both a blessing and a curse for NBR. For a 30-minute news show that’s short on compelling video and long on dry stats, it’s not easy to compete with the gushing online spigot of business news and financial data.

But there’s a significant web upside for NBR, too. The entire show is now available around the clock. Each program, released live to affiliates at 6:30 p.m. Eastern, pops up again at 9 as streaming media on PBS.org.

On the Jan. 22 show marking the Nightly Business Report’s 30th anniversary, Paul Kangas asked Forbes magazine Editor-in-Chief Steve Forbes to pick the most important business story since NBR’s 1979 debut. He chose two, essentially bookends for the program’s three decades: “The conquest of the great inflation of the 1980s, which made possible a 25-year bull market,” and helped launch NBR, and today’s economic meltdown, which seems to have invigorated the program.

The economic crisis is baffling in its complexity: recession, a yo-yo stock market, panic-stricken banks, layoffs, collapsing companies, government intervention, CEO scandals, mortgage and credit crunches, plummeting consumer confidence, Ponzi schemes, fears of inflation—and what the new Obama administration does about the mess it has inherited. This intricacy has made Nightly Business Report newsier than ever, with more time given to in-depth pieces by its reporters in New York and Washington and meatier interviews by the anchors.

Even on NBR’s 30th anniversary program Jan. 22, with both Gharib and Kangas reporting live from the New York Stock Exchange after ringing the closing bell, segments celebrating the show’s birthday had to get in line behind the forced resignation of a Bank of America chieftain, the first layoffs in Microsoft’s history, a Treasury secretary nominee in hot water over his Social Security taxes, and investment god Warren Buffet saying he has “no idea” when the economy will climb out of the Dumpster.

Bad news is good news for a business program, but NBR’s producers worry that there’s just too much business news for viewers to digest. Even before the economy tanked, focus groups found that “consumers are overwhelmed by the amount of business and investment information on TV and the Web,” says Zuckerman. “Viewers want to trust someone to sort news from noise.”

Ward, the executive editor, says the show has been doing just that all along. “We do a good job,” he says, “but we never quit trying to be better.”

And there’s something else that hasn’t changed in NBR’s three decades: the senior co-anchor’s daily sign-off from Miami, usually delivered with a hearty swing of the arm. “And I’m Paul Kangas,” he says in response to Susie Gharib’s goodnight from New York, “wishing you the best of good buys.”

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