Most people know CNBC as the channel you flip on when you want to hear about the latest stock market news or get investment advice from Suze Orman. But over the last year, it’s also become the network where you can watch budding entrepreneurs try to sell an alarm clock that cooks bacon while you sleep, or see someone pitch a portable urinal disguised as a golf club.
That’s because the network recently acquired reruns of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” the show where people offer up their inventions to millionaire investors (leading to those two aforementioned genius ideas). About two years ago, CNBC quietly started expanding into the reality TV world — then came “Shark Tank,” which brought a new, broader audience to the network. Ever since, the channel has been marching ahead with a primetime reinvention.
Like so many other cable outlets these days, CNBC recognized that it could no longer just exist with one identity; it had to expand beyond just its “financial news” mission to keep up. As a result, the channel churning out multiple reality shows, all with a theme that goes hand-in-hand with CNBC’s core mission: Money. Shows include “The Profit,” “Car Chasers,” “Restaurant Startup,” and starting Wednesday night, “The Filthy Rich Guide,” which features how .01 percenters spends crazy gobs of money. (Can you say “private island”?)
It’s been a positive, if challenging transition for CNBC, which generally goes by the theory “our primetime is daytime” — after all, that’s when people tune in to keep up with the markets. Network president Mark Hoffman admitted that for a long time, CNBC didn’t pay much attention to its programming past 7 p.m. It was sort of the land of misfit toys. Who can forget series with John McEnroe and Dennis Miller? (Pretty much everyone.) There were various game shows and reruns of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”
None of them did well in the ratings, and executives decided they needed to completely reinvent the network’s landscape in primetime, especially as the competition increased. So they studied what other channels were doing and thought about what kind of reality shows would be the best fit, especially to bring in new viewers that weren’t used to CNBC having anything except financial info.
In February 2012, the network hired Jim Ackerman as senior vice president for primetime alternative programming; he’s a former NBC News producer who could boast a great track record developing reality shows at VH1 (“Love & Hip Hop,” “Celebrity Fit Club”). While he didn’t want to bring trainwreck reality shows with dysfunctional money experts to the network, Hoffman did want a captivating primetime line-up that had a similar DNA to the daytime financial shows, but a different perspective.
They decided to make sure all of their reality shows involved “fundamental conflicts around money,” something that every person has to some degree: “Do I buy something or sell something? Do I take this job or take a different job? Do I grab for my dreams or do I stay in a place that’s safe?” Hoffman says, ticking off all-too-relatable concerns. “All of that real human emotion is transferable across socioeconomic lines.”
Using that idea as a jumping-off point, the network launched “The Profit” in summer 2013. The premise: Millionaire Marcus Lemonis invests his own money in struggling small businesses, attempting to turn them around. While ratings started off slow, it eventually started gaining traction on Twitter and social media. (New episodes start airing Oct. 14.) Now, even Hoffman is surprised by the overwhelming reaction to the series — and how many people say they watch it to get business and start-up lessons.
One compelling element is that Lemonis is investing his own money, which Ackerman says adds an irresistible draw. Business in general is a “spectacular backdrop” to any reality show, he said, because the most important question when developing shows are “What are the stakes?”
“When dealing with business, money or someone’s livelihood,” Ackerman said. “There’s always high stakes.”
Emmy-winning “Shark Tank” has a similar concept, as the experts/”sharks” (Mark Cuban, Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran, etc.) use their own money to potentially fund a (sometimes wacky) business idea. Though “The Profit” was already airing, it wasn’t until CNBC landed the rights to “Shark Tank” reruns when people began taking notice of the network’s new strategy, and the channel upped its reality TV game with even more shows. Shortly after the series started airing this past winter, the network hit nearly 600,000 viewers in primetime, the kind of numbers the network saw in the days of the economic recession.
The series has continued to be a success for the channel: “Shark Tank Tuesdays” have helped the network double their numbers that night from the same time last year, averaging about 354,000 viewers. Looking to add that success to other days of the week, the show now airs Monday through Friday. The first week “Shark Tank” aired every night (starting Sept. 22), CNBC saw its best primetime numbers in 11 years with an average audience of 391,000 people. Still, the network continues to lag behind competitors such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. (“Shark Tank” can occasionally beat CNN in total viewers, though.)
Hoffman knows that at the moment, CNBC’s daytime shows are aimed at an extremely narrow subset of the viewing public, which has a big impact on the ratings later in the evening. But the longterm goal is to broaden that for primetime — and he’s very pleased with the progress.
“It’s funny, we’re an established cable channel celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but we’re really a start-up when it comes to this kind of content,” Hoffman said. “For a start-up to be growing at this pace this early in its evolution is exciting and rewarding.”