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CNBC: Prime-Time Autonomy

Oct 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

CNBC President Pamela Thomas-Graham is ready for prime time.
The executive, who already has redesigned the business news team that fills the 5 a.m.-to-7 p.m. business day, is taking control of CNBC prime time, a four-hour programming block that historically has been the responsibility of NBC News.
The transfer of power was greenlighted a month ago and is expected to be completed by late this year, after Ms. Thomas-Graham fills the new position of VP of prime-time programming. CNBC deployed a search firm several weeks ago to help fill the post. “She has always wanted [the prime-time block],” an NBC source said of Ms. Thomas-Graham, who just moved CNBC to mammoth new headquarters, from which it originates effective today.
The peaceful and bad-bloodless coup was less power play-NBC News President Neal Shapiro had seen his division’s role not as controlling CNBC prime time but as “helping out” with news content when necessary, said a spokeswoman-than pragmatism on the part of Ms. Thomas-Graham, whose division is said to be churning out some $350 million in annual profit.
“My getting this responsibility is just a sign of the good work that we’ve all been collectively doing for CNBC prime time,” Ms. Thomas-Graham told TelevisionWeek in an exclusive interview. “It’s an important area of growth for us, an opportunity.”
If she can develop prime-time programming that will convince CNBC’s gold-plated core daytime audience to tune in to CNBC at night, she would be fattening an already very golden goose for NBC Chairman Bob Wright, who agreed to give her prime and to whom Ms. Thomas-Graham reports. CNBC’s core audience-well-off, well-educated men who have college degrees, more than one home and a keen interest in the economy and markets, according to proprietary data from sources such as the Mendelsohn Affluent Survey-has remained stable. Often this core watches in venues not measured by Nielsen home tracking, such as their offices or hotel rooms. “The core audience is the unmeasured audience,” Ms. Thomas-Graham said. “That core audience has not migrated anywhere else.”
That core audience and what she calls its “depth of engagement” have kept CNBC’s financial metrics up during the up-and-down markets that have driven off the casual viewers measured by Nielsen Media Research. Nielsen data showed CNBC down 17 percent in daytime and 25 percent in prime time in September compared with the previous September, even though distribution had grown to some 86 million homes in the United States and Canada.
“We’ve proven the ability of this network to perform very well financially even in the most difficult programming circumstances,” Ms. Thomas-Graham said. “If you looked at our profitability in 2000, which was the height of the Internet bubble and the height of the frenzy around business news, we are actually as profitable now. And we have been for every year in between as we were then-which I think is an important achievement because our performance is ultimately measured by the value we deliver to our General Electric shareholders. To continue to have robust profitability, double-digit cash-flow growth and all the important financial metrics that we get measured by as a management team is very important.”
Ms. Thomas-Graham has had a busy year. She and Senior VP of business news David Friend have spent most of the past year reshaping the CNBC business news team along the lines of a traditional newsroom. They hired former New York Times business editor Judith Dobrzynski to serve as managing editor in charge of the reporters and hired NBC News and Bloomberg TV alum Beatrice Myers as news director running the producers.
Ms. Thomas-Graham, 40, dipped her toe in the prime-time-development waters with such long-form reports as Wall Street correspondent David Faber’s “The Big Lie” and “The Big Heist,” and with “Topic A With Tina Brown” specials that have picked up viewers and profile with each outing. CNBC had assumed control of its 8 p.m. show “Kudlow & Cramer” because it is more markets-driven, while the politics-meets-economic-policy nature of “Capital Report” at 9 p.m. makes it logical to keep NBC more closely involved.
Look for Ms. Thomas-Graham and her prime-time VP to focus on what they describe as smart and provocative personalities having smart and topical conversation, similar to “Topic A” and specials being developed for ad-agency owner and commentator Donny Deutsch, who has signed a development deal similar to Tina Brown’s. They’ll focus on the “nexus” of politics and economics, as on the well-connected “Capital Report.” And they’ll develop more documentary programs that showcase the talent on CNBC’s on-air daytime team.
Another member of the growing CNBC team is Cheryl Gould, whom Mr. Shapiro named the NBC News VP in charge of overseeing CNBC prime time and weekends in the summer of 2001 and who became VP of CNBC news a month ago with direct report to Ms. Thomas-Graham and a dotted line to Mr. Shapiro. Ms. Gould will look for brand-burnishing “event” programming such as the Sept. 25 debate on economic issues by the Democratic presidential candidates that was seen by 603,000 viewers live on CNBC. The network co-sponsored the event with The Wall Street Journal.
“It’s been a priority of mine to proactively look for ways to work together with Dow Jones and specifically The Wall Street Journal. The debate is really the fruit of that effort,” said Ms. Thomas-Graham, who describes the content partnership as “very strong.”
Ms. Gould also is charged with looking for the CNBC angle on political stories and communicating with “The News With Brian Williams,” which moved to CNBC, where it is telecast at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., when MSNBC took a turn for a rowdier and less-compatible prime-time lineup.
Whether there will be a “News With …” franchise after Mr. Williams succeeds Tom Brokaw following the November 2004 elections remains to be seen. Ms. Thomas-Graham clearly doesn’t see anything like that running on her channel.
“We’re thinking about how to make CNBC prime time cohesive with what we do at CNBC, but distinctive,” she said.
“We haven’t made any final decisions,” she added. “I’m just saying that we’re looking for distinctive programming as we continue to go forward.
“As we think about the kind of prime-time programming that will appeal to our upscale audience, we will cast a fairly wide net at the beginning,” she said. “We are looking for great ideas and provocative programming concepts, [but] nothing scripted.”
Ms. Thomas-Graham said CNBC’s new headquarters-a 350,000-square-foot testament to an era of tapeless production and the ability to do and have access to nearly everything it takes to keep CNBC ticking through the day through one’s desktop computer-is “a terrific statement about what the future of our programming can be.”
The structure, conceived by her predecessor and now CNBC International Chairman Bill Bolster, is said to have cost “under $140 million.”
“If you could see it, you’d know it’s worth every penny,” Ms. Thomas-Graham said.