Broad Experience For a Tall Job: A Hipper CNBC

Terry Moran interviews the Guantanamo prison commander, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, last week for
Terry Moran interviews the Guantanamo prison commander, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, last week for "Nightline." (Abc News)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 3, 2006

When Jonathan Wald was fired as executive producer of the "Today" show, he says, "I wanted to stay in the game and get back into the daily battle."

When Josh Howard was forced to resign as executive producer of "60 Minutes II" after the botched story on President Bush and the National Guard, "I frankly wasn't sure, after my last experience, whether I wanted to work in television again."

Both men landed at CNBC, where they are helping to retool programming on a business channel that has struggled in the ratings since the dot-com bust six years ago.

Wald helped launch the 7 p.m. weeknight show "On the Money," which takes a freewheeling approach to the financial side of pop culture. Howard is preparing the fall launch of a monthly magazine show that sounds suspiciously like "60 Minutes" and producing four documentaries, some of which may run as long as two hours.

The two executives are helping to move CNBC, which fixates on stocks and bonds during the day, toward a broader definition of business coverage. And they're finding it liberating to be freed from having to deliver mass audiences for the broadcast networks.

"We don't have to do a piece on Britney Spears because we need to drag in the 18-to-49-year-olds," Howard says. "It's a huge advantage."

Since its core mission is to cover Wall Street and corporate America, CNBC's fate is tied to public interest in the markets. So executives are trying to dream up new programming that will get more people into the cable tent. "We'd like everybody who has even a passing interest in business and markets and investment," says Mark Hoffman, who took over as CNBC president last year and would face stiff competition if Fox News follows through on plans for a business channel.

Hoffman wanted the evening lineup to reflect the network's core identity. CNBC's prime time has had more than its share of failures, including shows hosted by Dennis Miller and John McEnroe, leaving the channel turning to reruns of Conan O'Brien and "The Apprentice" and looking very much out of gas.

The O'Brien repeats gave way to "On the Money," which boosted viewership by 32 percent but still reached only 141,000 viewers over the past three months. The show, hosted by Dylan Ratigan, has been covering issues involving Hollywood (why is America obsessed with weekend box office grosses?), cyberspace (NBC's alliance with the post-it-yourself video site YouTube), and global business (a piece from Russia on the seizing of a factory that makes tubes for the kind of amplifiers once used by Jimi Hendrix).

"Business news and what people are talking about need not be mutually exclusive," says Wald, now a senior vice president. With segments such as "Ka-Ching" (on who's making big bucks) and running jokes (such as calling Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke "The Bearded One"), "On the Money" brings a fast-paced sensibility to potentially dull subjects.

Unlike "Today," where he was dropped in 2002 after 16 months on the job, "it's great to start something new and not just be the latest one to be handed the keys," Wald says. But even with cable's smaller audiences, he says, "the pressure and the stakes are just as high" as at NBC.

Howard, whose first documentary involves a behind-the-scenes look at a major airline, says the model is CNBC reporter David Faber's examination of Wal-Mart, which won Peabody and DuPont awards and has aired 35 times. "One of the nice things about cable is you get to run the stuff over and over again," Howard says.

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