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‘NBR’ Keeps Eyes on Business Reporting

Jan 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In the television genre of business news, a birthday is coinciding with a midlife crisis.
“Nightly Business Report,” television’s longest-running daily business news program, this week celebrates its 25th anniversary, serving up a look at its list of the 25 most influential people in business from the past 25 years. The list, which was compiled with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, will be revealed starting Monday, Jan. 19, with Friday’s broadcast featuring the most influential person in business of the past 25 years.
The silver anniversary celebration comes as “NBR,” which is hosted by Paul Kangas and Susie Gharib and airs five times a week on 270 PBS stations, looks to maintain relevance in a world that has vastly changed since January 1979, when “NBR” first went on the air and the only other regular business program was the weekly “Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street Week,” which launched in 1972 and also aired on PBS.
“We were the first daily news program,” said Linda O’Bryon, “NBR’s” general manager and executive editor. “The idea was to provide viewers with information useful to them in their daily lives and really focus on staying the course of business news.”
Even now, as the business news space gets more crowded with cable networks and programs devoted to business news, Ms. O’Bryon said, “NBR,” which is based in Miami, with bureaus in New York, Washington and Chicago, won’t change its focus, opting to stay true to its business roots.
“We provide a half-hour, end-of-day summary, and we are going to stick to our knitting and focus on that,” she said.
Ms. O’Bryon’s stance is a conscious decision made at a time when everyone in the business news genre is engaged in some form of introspection about the future of covering financial news. Thanks to a combination of a viewer abandonment brought on by a flagging stock market and an increasingly crowded field, every player in the space-from “NBR” itself to cable networks such as CNBC-is scrambling to find the right mix of content that reflects both the state of the financial markets and the tastes of viewers.
To be sure, though “NBR” is one of the earliest players in the business news genre, most observers see the real soul-searching taking place at networks such as CNN and CNBC, whose endeavors in business news coverage are ad-supported and generally take on a higher profile. (“NBR” is currently underwritten by investment bank A.G. Edwards, accounting firm Deloitte & Touche and investment firm Franklin Templeton Investments.)
“[`NBR’] is doing a yeoman’s service, still plugging away night after night, but because it’s on PBS it’s not part of the exciting battle [among the cable channels],” said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
Nevertheless, Mr. Thompson and others give “NBR” credit for creating niche programming at a time when most television programming was designed to attract as many viewers as possible.
“Commercial television went nowhere near business news,” said Tim Brooks, executive VP and head of research at Lifetime. “Because it was a mass medium, television focused on general audiences. Even an audience as broad as kids was relegated to Saturday morning.”
Though that changed once cable entered the picture, challenges remain. Chief among them is how to strike the right balance of business news and other types of programming that will attract audiences regardless of the state of the market. In many cases, that has meant veering away from traditional financial news in favor of more general news.
That was the motivation behind the decision last June by CNN to change the daily Lou Dobbs program to “Lou Dobbs Tonight” from “Lou Dobbs Moneyline,” focusing more on global news. CNN’s sister network, CNNfn, is taking a more personal-finance approach to its programming.
“Nearly every cable service has figured out that the best model is the old broadcast model of diversifying programming,” Mr. Thompson said. “MTV figured it out, Court TV figured it out. Even the Weather Channel has figured it out.”
Such diversification is especially important given the various outlets available to people who want business news information, he added.
“What works appeals to the broadest possible audience-news about personal finance and what people can use in everyday life,” said Peter Butchen, senior VP and director of national broadcasting at media-buying company Initiative. “The average American doesn’t care if farm-equipment sales are down, even though that’s important news.”
It’s something that even CNBC, which attracts a significant business audience (that often is not captured in the network’s ratings), takes to heart. As the markets languished, the cable channel expanded its programming to include long-form documentaries, including pieces on China and India that are designed to illustrate how globalization is affecting the U.S. economy, said David Friend, senior VP of business news at CNBC.
“We have to continue to evolve, to dig deeper and offer more analysis,” he said.