Guest Commentary: Dobbs, CNN attempt to rekindle the magic

May 14, 2001  •  Post A Comment

He is called The Fat Man. Some call him that affectionately, others not so affectionately.
But as Lou Dobbs, “The Fat Man,” starts his “comeback” as the appointed and anointed savior of CNN on May 14, the question on the floor is: Will he sizzle or fizzle?
For Dobbs and for CNN it is a serious question, because this is a far bigger roll of the dice than it would seem at the outset.
First, the universe to which he returns is a far, far different place than the one he left.
Second, there are some dirty little secrets lost in the barrage of press and promotion marking his return. For instance: He wasn’t the unqualified success he and CNN would like the world to believe, and the “Moneyline News Hour” with Willow Bay and Stuart Varney that Dobbs has been called back to rescue was hardly the failure CNN now makes it out to be in its rush to trumpet Dobbs’ return.
The best place to begin is with that claim of all those early successes. True? Not exactly.
Those boasts about Dobbs and “Moneyline” always turned on it being the “highest-rated” business news program and the one visited “by more CEOs than any other.” How could it have been anything else? From the launch of Dobbs and “Moneyline” in 1981 until the arrival on scene of CNBC and Bloomberg, Dobbs’ “Moneyline” was the nag in a one-horse financial news race-the automatic No. 1.It was the stuff of press-release heaven.
As for all those CEOs who showed up “exclusively” on Dobbs’ doorstep, there was no other outlet for product-flacking and back-patting. Where else were they going to go but to “Moneyline”? Who else where they going to cozy up to when they had to get their word out?
CNBC’s rise
But that was then and this is now.
It is a “now” that has in it a CNBC that reached critical mass sometime in late 1999 and has continued to grow. CNBC does something for “Business Center” that CNN cannot do for “Moneyline” but with which Dobbs now must contend: It provides a day-long broadcast platform that aggregates a huge-in cable terms-business and finance audience and funnels it through CNBC’s broadcast day.
That this is a concern his return raises is clear, because Dobbs and “Moneyline” have been here before. After the Clinton impeachment had run its course in the first months of 1999, the air went out of everything on the CNN schedule, including “Moneyline.” The unthinkable began to happen. “Business Center” started surpassing it several days a week, even before the CNBC program found its stride and new anchors-and then expanded and moved to Wall Street.
Bad tidings
With the exception of the week of the Columbine school tragedy, “Moneyline’s” ratings were a source of constant consternation for Dobbs in the months before his sudden departure. That Maria Bartiromo was beating him drove Dobbs to distraction, as did the fact that CEOs were beginning to show up on CNBC before they found their way onto “Moneyline.” Still worse, what had been promoted as “the historic 7 p.m. tune-in” for “Moneyline’s” second half-hour was also going away.
In a word, Dobbs’ ratings sucked before he left. Badly.
Competition and the network’s slide were only part of the problem.
The lead-in for “Moneyline” was about as incompatible as could be. Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff were anchoring a very serviceable program of purely international news aimed at CNN’s global audience. But “WorldView” was one of those programs that insiders said fell in the CNN lineup where it did “to keep Ted happy.” That is “Ted” as in Turner. For the rest of the American audience, however, more often than not it was numbingly dull, and the lead-in it provided “Moneyline” was painfully small. On many nights that spring, the Woodruff-Shaw lead-in amounted to fewer than 150,000 homes. (By comparison, that was about a quarter of what ABC News got at 2 a.m. for its overnight news.) “Moneyline” therefore went on the air each night in a deep and noncompetitive ratings hole.
In the middle of this ratings collapse, after an ugly confrontation with CNN President Rick Kaplan, whom he very publicly detested, Dobbs resigned. That forced Willow Bay and Stuart Varney onstage. They were-the public record shows-an accidental pairing. Varney wanted desperately to replace Dobbs and just as desperately wanted to be sole anchor. He had been a major player at CNNfn but had left after what insiders very carefully described as “difficulties with Dobbs.” To come back as his replacement was appetizing in the extreme.
On the other hand, Bay didn’t want any part of “Moneyline.” She already was anchoring two prime-time programs on CNN each week and felt that was enough. She finally and reluctantly succumbed to pressure from Kaplan and CNN News Group Chairman Tom Johnson to “do her part” during what had become a significant crisis for CNN. “Moneyline” and “Larry King Live” were CNN’s cash cows, and if “Moneyline” were in disarray, that could be dangerously expensive.
The new crew
So in a multicity conference call reminiscent of one of the countdown scenes in “The Right Stuff,” Bay and Varney were cleared for launch. The misgivings some had about his very British accent were set aside, as were misgivings about Bay’s experience when it was pointed out that she had something many business broadcasters didn’t-an MBA-and that this was, after all, a crisis with a capital “C.”
Bay and Varney launched spectacularly well, not because they were an instantly accepted and brilliant broadcast team but rather because the news gods smiled. The death of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife the weekend before Bay and Varney debuted produced a ratings spike for CNN that July that was stunning in its dimension.
It was a tide that floated every boat on the CNN schedule. In their premiere week, Bay and Varney were being viewed in more than a million homes each evening. No one at CNNfn could remember a time when “Moneyline” with Lou Dobbs had experienced that large a sustained audience. But the high times did not last.
The story went away-and so did the ratings for “Moneyline” and the rest of CNN, which had begun bleeding in all dayparts. The TV simulcast of Don Imus’ radio show, with its much smaller distribution on MSNBC, began to beat the CNN early-morning block, while Fox-with a similarly small distribution-began to make its move in prime time.
Bitter ratings reality
As for “Moneyline,” its killer was the audience explosion at CNBC. On most days beginning that summer, it began to out-rate CNN during many of the hours the stock markets were open. That provided a huge audience and a promotional platform for “Business Center,” which had become a smartly anchored one-hour broadcast. Ron Insana and Sue Herrera were a far more comfortable couple on the air than Bay and Varney ever became.
For “Moneyline,” while it was losing less audience on a percentage basis than even “Larry King Live,” there was no joy at all. For the first time, “Business Center” beat it for a month, and then for a quarter and then for the entire broadcast year that ended in August 2000. It took the election cliffhanger to break this cycle, but once the nation’s electoral crisis ended, the ratings crisis for CNN and “Moneyline” began again, setting the stage for Dobbs’ return.
Varney quit suddenly, which left Bay the sole anchor, and she was very quickly dumped in favor of what CNN called “Dobbs’ star power.”
Forgotten in the rush to trumpet his return were all the supportive factoids run out in defense of “Moneyline” with Bay and Varney during the ratings nightmare: Advertising was holding steady; “Moneyline’s” audience had fallen off less than the rest of the CNN schedule. It was beating its lead-in and it was doing far better at 11:30 than that repeat with Dobbs ever had.
Forgotten also was that in the weeks immediately preceding his return, the party line at CNN had continued to be, in effect, that pigs would fly first. Phil Kent, CNN’s new group president, was even telling people that “Hitler would land in Hoboken” before he would allow D
obbs to re-enter the building.
What Dobbs comes back to is dicey, and achieving success has to be seen as problematic. The current ratings picture is no better and in many respects far more dangerous. Not only is CNBC continuing to grow, but Fox and MSNBC have reached their own forms of critical mass as well.
So why would Dobbs take the risk? Why walk away from what appeared to be his growing and potentially valuable relationship with CNBC and NBC and put the torch to bridges he had built to Bob Wright and Jack Welch?
Only a man
The money has to be part of it. The $5 million number “on the street” is much more than the combined salaries of Bay and Varney were said to be, but anyone who knows Dobbs or has competed against him or crossed him knows there has to be more to this than just the dollars.
Dobbs’ return to CNN in the role of “savior” is the ultimate gotcha. What you saw on him at the news conference marking his return was the expansive smile of a cat who had eaten not one canary but a shopful. But will the Return of Dobbs work? For it not to fizzle, a lot must happen. The business news audience Dobbs and CNN believe is his would have to come back in large numbers after his two-year absence, as will all those CEOs who have made CNBC their destination of choice.
Bill Bolster, Bruno Cohen and their CNBC team in Fort Lee would have to roll over and play dead during the Dobbs relaunch, which obviously they’re not doing-as evidenced by their decision to expand to a two-hour “Business Center,” which debuts at 6 p.m. (a start time a half-hour ahead of “Moneyline”) May 14.
And those news gods who smiled on Dobbs in ’98 and on Bay and Varney briefly in ’99 would have to conjure up a major news story that would inflate the CNN audience, and therefore “Moneyline’s,” in the doldrum months of summer to make this defensible as a triumphant return.
How likely is all that?
Perhaps pigs will fly. Again.