Frontier -- Features
Small Biz on TV: Not Exactly Prime Time
It attracts an audience--and competition--despite tacky sets and ungodly airtimes
When Ari Jacoby stepped into a small tele- vision studio in Norwalk, Conn., four months ago, he felt his entire business was on the line. Wearing his "lucky" blue tie and a charcoal-gray suit, light blue shirt, and shiny black wingtips, picked out by his "fashion consultant" (his mom, he admits), the 23-year-old Georgetown University grad rehearsed his spiel over and over and self-consciously patted down his thick, dark hair, already so flattened with gel that, by his own description, "you could have balanced a brick on it."
He had reason to be hyper. For Jacoby, the 12-minute appearance on a national public-television show, MoneyHunt, offered the potential of a big financial breakthrough for his two-year-old company, Newsletters.com Inc.--if he could survive a grilling on his business plan by the MoneyHunt panel of experts. Like thousands of young entrepreneurs, he believed that an on-air thumbs-up would attract venture capitalists from around the nation who would supply the $6 million in financing he needed. A strong showing on the program, seen weekly by roughly 1 million people, could make the difference between a successful public offering and an eventual Chapter 11 filing.
Jacoby also knew the odds were long. For starters, he and his company, with a staff of 15 twentysomethings, didn't boast much of a track record. Based in College Park, Md., Newsletters.com peddles subscriptions to about 180 investment newsletters on its Web site, splitting subscription fees evenly with the publishers. While growing rapidly, Newsletters.com brought in just $50,000 in revenues last year. It expects to generate about $500,000 this year, and doesn't project a profit until at least 2001. Already, Jacoby had beaten out 60 or 70 other Bill Gates wannabes during a crowded "screen test" for the coveted slot at a northern Virginia hotel several weeks before. "You don't get that many opportunities to make an impression on national TV," he said before the taping. "When you get your opportunity, you really have to fire a hole-in-one."
And he did. Panelist Mark Stevens, executive vice-president of business affairs at Excite@Home, endorsed the company's direction and predicted it soon would be acquired. Co-hosts Miles Spencer and Cliff Ennico grilled Jacoby about strategy and cut off his answers but eventually gave him their approval, too. Just as important, Jacoby's fellow contestant from FreeMe.com, which provides online services to small companies, failed to impress. MoneyHunt founder and co-host Miles Spencer lauded Jacoby's energy and intensity prior to the July taping. Spencer praised Newsletters.com as "a unique idea" with "truly breakaway potential." But that doesn't mean Newsletters.com will score its much-needed $6 million when the show airs nationally this fall. That's because MoneyHunt hands out no prizes itself, other than an hour of free advice from expert mentors from various business disciplines.
Welcome to the brave new world of small-business TV, where publicity is its own reward. After decades of ignoring the needs of the estimated 23 million smaller companies in the U.S., broadcast and cable networks are finally giving more attention to startups, established mom-and-pop operations, and other little companies. Plus, for the first time, these programs are attracting big-bucks advertisers and commercial sponsors.
In the past two years, both financial cable networks, CNBC and CNNfn, have launched shows or segments focusing on entrepreneurs. First Business, a syndicated broadcast show that runs weekdays on 110 stations, promotes its commitment to "small business and entrepreneurship." Bloomberg Television produces a weekly small-business show for USA Network. And many PBS stations now feature two programs, MoneyHunt and Small Business 2000.
"Small is finally getting some respect," says Hattie Bryant, creator and host of Small Business 2000, a half-hour weekly that profiles established companies. She recalls the bad old days, six years ago, when accounting giant Price Waterhouse refused to sponsor her program because, as one top executive smugly told her, "nobody wants to be small." Now, her five-year-old show, carried by about 200 public-television stations, boasts major sponsors such as IBM.
Seeking to capitalize on this new attitude, several investors and former TV executives have turned entrepreneur themselves: They're trying to raise more than $50 million for a new cable- and satellite-TV network focusing on small business. They hope to introduce the channel as early as this autumn and aim to tackle such nuts-and-bolts issues as training, hiring, compensation plans, and operations. Perhaps more telling is that they're worried some unforeseen rival might beat them to the punch. "It's a very neglected niche," says Reese Schonfeld, former president of CNN and now president of Beauchamp Place Communications Inc., a New York consulting firm that helps companies develop media properties. "There's very little interest in smaller companies until they get very hot."
To be sure, small-business TV has not exactly arrived yet. Largely the work of tiny, independent production houses, most of the programs are cheesy, low-budget shows that look more like financial versions of Wayne's World than 60 Minutes. Even the relatively glitzy MoneyHunt resembles the cable-TV public-access show where it began life in 1996. And money remains tight because corporate sponsorships, while available, aren't enough to support a more ambitious effort. Despite her success in recruiting a few prominent sponsors for Small Business 2000, for example, Bryant frets that she can't raise enough money to produce more than 26 episodes a year. "It's too hard a sell," she says, noting that each program costs $40,000 to $50,000 to make. "It's too expensive to do what we do."
Most shows are also tough to find on a schedule and receive little, if any, promotion from their networks or stations. If they manage to find a regular place on a national network schedule, they usually land in odd hours, such as 6 a.m. on Saturday. More often, their time slots vary from market to market, depressing their potential viewing audience in key cities. MoneyHunt, for instance, airs at midnight on Sunday in San Francisco, early Sunday afternoon in New York, early Friday evening in Washington, and late Sunday morning in San Antonio. "They're in some not-so-hot time slots," notes Jerry Spencer, 39 (no relation to Miles), an entrepreneur from Helena, Mont., who popped up on MoneyHunt two years ago and will soon have a return engagement. And forget about seeing the show altogether if you're not in a major market. "We don't even get it in Montana," complains Spencer, who makes solar-powered chargers for portable computers in Helena. "They have one weak signal in Bozeman."
Nevertheless, small-business shows are slowly proliferating on the tube amid a general flood of new financial programs and networks. Sensing a growing appetite among audience and advertisers for such fare, TV producers are tinkering with formats ranging from gimmicky talking heads to newscasts and advice. "There's room for a lot more," says Ramona Schindelheim, producer of Power Lunch for CNBC, citing increasing consumer interest. "It's a much more high-profile subject."
The granddaddy of the shows is First Business, a 10-year-old, half-hour financial newscast that runs before the sun rises in most of its 110 markets but nevertheless is viewed by more than 200,000 people each weekday, according to Nielsen Media Research. Originally developed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and now produced by Hubbard Broadcasting's Conus Communications Co., First Business rattles through the morning's business, general news, stock, weather, and sports reports before occasionally profiling smaller companies for two minutes. Anchor Barton Eckert, a longtime local radio and TV journalist and former financial consultant with a goofy, sometimes eerie smile, delivers the news and introduces the field reports in a dark, lonely-looking Washington studio. Although the newscast spends relatively little time on the small-business profiles, Densil Allen, the show's veteran executive producer, insists the total package is targeted at Main Street, not Wall Street. "We like to think that just about everything we do is aimed at small businesses and entrepreneurs," he says. Still, you might not think it's worth an early wake-up call to see.
By contrast, Small Business 2000, the second-oldest show, with a weekly viewership of about 1 million, spends nearly all its time on entrepreneurs. Developed by Bryant and her husband, Bruce Camber, in 1994, it spends 26 minutes of each show on weighty profiles of companies that are at least 10 years old and average between $5 million and $12 million in annual revenues. A recent example: Automated Food Systems Inc., a Dallas corn-dog machine maker run by a husband-and-wife team. Bryant, a funny, engaging minister's daughter, presides over the show as high priestess of small businessdom, occasionally preaching such universal truths as "you need a shtick to succeed." Says Bryant: "Everybody else can do the news. We do wisdom and truth that's everlasting." She's also fond of tortured rhymes. A favorite Bryant quip: "If you stick to your knitting as a small-business owner, you will find riches in niches."MoneyHunt, launched as a cable public-access program three years ago and now carried by 110 public-television stations, is a blend of The Gong Show, The People's Court, and Wheel of Fortune. Sitting around a triangular table in front of a huge clock, two contestants spend each 30-minute episode pitching their business plans to co-hosts Spencer and Ennico and a guest executive. Led by Spencer, a fast-talking, 35-year-old investment banker who's a ringer for Michael J. Fox, the panel peppers contestants with questions before deciding if they are worthy. "Most memorable...are when people blow up in their seats," says Spencer. He still chuckles about a Harvard University MBA who lost his composure when a record-company executive shredded his music-CD venture on-air. "The guy choked, and it was glorious," Spencer says--though he adds, "we've been having a little trouble hooking Harvard MBAs since then." (MoneyHunt and BUSINESS WEEK have a relationship that includes a 30-second segment on financial tips delivered by frontier Deputy Editor Robin D. Schatz.)
On the cable side, the most ambitious venture is Entrepreneurs Only, a nightly newsmagazine program on CNNfn, the financial sibling to CNN. The slickly produced half-hour show, launched last November, mixes beefy company profiles with lengthy studio interviews and briefer newscasts, stock reports, advice segments, and offbeat features. Companies profiled have included J&J Snack Foods Corp., a maker of soft pretzels, and Dave & Buster's Inc. theme restaurants. CNNfn, which reaches an estimated 12 million households, regards the show a key part of its prime-time schedule and is considering more programs like it, says CNNfn Executive Producer Eric Gonon.Bloomberg Small Business, less newsy and more help-oriented than Entrepreneurs Only, runs early on Saturday mornings before the cartoons on USA Network. Anchored by veteran TV reporter Jeff Weiser, the half-hour magazine show focuses on how-to techniques in new technology and finance. Despite airing at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., the four-year-old program averages 145,000 viewers a week, a surprisingly decent total for cable, says Nielsen. Why? "We're the only business programming on at that hour," says Bloomberg spokeswoman Chris Taylor, noting that it's the highest-rated of Bloomberg's three magazine-style programs.
CNBC's entry consists of weekly small-business segments reported by Kevin G. Salwen, The Wall Street Journal's Atlanta-based small-business editor. The three-minute reports, which run on Tuesday afternoons during the network's popular Power Lunch program, focus mainly on news, trend pieces, and how-to segments, such as recent profiles on franchising, and a story on new everyday uses for electric-powered golf carts. One in every three or four segments focuses on a single company.
Want to get on one of these shows? The competition is keen. At MoneyHunt, Spencer boasts a waiting list of thousands rounded up partly from its Web site. The hurdle for getting on First Business is high, too. The newscast runs its two-minute profiles about once a week on such "blue-chip" small companies as United Bank of Philadelphia, which caters to inner-city black consumers. An independent panel selects the 52 companies after nominations are solicited by both First Business and a corporate sponsor, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. "Last year, we got something like 22,000 nominations," Allen says.
No more than 26 companies receive long profiles each season on Small Business 2000. The winning companies must be steadily growing, offer niche products or services, have a unique twist, and help the greater community. Says Bryant: "We're looking for a sliver of genius." Similarly, Entrepreneurs Only runs at least one profile each program. But the CNNfn show doesn't confine itself to startups or little companies. Cover story subjects range from Bill Gates' legal woes to cataloger Lillian Vernon Corp. and Fresh Samantha Inc., a fresh juicemaker based in Maine.
CNBC selects no more than 20 companies a year on Power Lunch. As for Bloomberg Small Business, it eschews profiles altogether, choosing to concentrate more on technology, workplace, and financial advice. Your chances of getting on the show improve if you teach lessons about small-business survival.
So even with the emergence of small-business TV, entrepreneurs such as Jacoby had better savor their 12 minutes of fame: Chances are, they won't be seeing the inside of a TV studio again for a long time. And if you're expecting to see small-biz TV in a time slot opposite Friends or Ally McBeal anytime soon, well, don't bet your VCR on it.By Alan BreznickReturn to top