With the stock market floundering and war with Iraq looming larger every day, it's fair to say business news isn't at the top of the agenda for most Americans these days. Times have been tough since the tech bubble popped in 2000. Financial-news network CNBC saw daily viewership drop 25% in 2002 from 2001, according to Nielsen Media Research. But one show in the CNBC roster is picking up steam: the loud, oddly hip Kudlow & Cramer, which airs at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Its hosts are the pinstriped, neoconservative economist Lawrence Kudlow and the slightly disheveled, hyperbolic former hedge-fund manager turned journalist James Cramer, an avowed Democrat. Its ratings are still small -- averaging about 194,000 viewers in the last six months, according to Nielsen. But viewership jumped 25% in the second half of 2002 from the first half. "It's an impressive spike," says independent media critic Jack Myers.
TALKING BACK. Media watchers say Cramer, with his gesticulated rants, and Kudlow, who is only about 10 degrees more demure, are the perfect tag team for a badly burned investor class. "Their anger may fulfill some sort of deep-seated need for those who've been screwed by the market," says media critic Jack Myers. TV Guide Senior Editor J. Max Robins agrees: "This is the kind of TV where folks talk back to the screen. I think CNBC is onto something."
Despite his free-markets leanings, Kudlow has called for Wall Street's top brass to resign saying, "the fish rots from the head down." Cramer, more bombastic, has spouted things like, "Merrill Lynch knew Enron was going in the toilet. I bet for their personal accounts they were short Enron!"
The two aren't exactly blemish-free themselves. In the early '90s, Kudlow resigned as chief economist for Bear Stearns, later citing cocaine and alcohol use. And Cramer has acknowledged unsavory trading practices, such as working to manipulate stock analysts, in his recent book, Confessions of a Street Addict. Cramer writes, "We would work to get upgrades or downgrades because we knew, cynically, that Wall Street was simply a promotion machine."
"ACID BATH." Not everyone is a fan of the show, either. Some wags refer to it as "Krudlow and Screamer." The program still has 41% fewer viewers than Hardball with Chris Matthews did a year ago, which occupied the same 8-9 p.m time slot on CNBC. (Hardball has moved to sister network MSNBC at 9 p.m.) Kudlow & Cramer is also getting beat in its time slot by the competition: CNN's Connie Chung Tonight averaged 751,000 viewers in 2002, and Fox's The O'Reilly Factor averaged almost 2 million viewers last year, according to Nielsen.
The numbers don't tell the whole story, however. "You have to have to take into account the quality of Kudlow & Cramer's audience," says TV Guide's Robins. According to media experts, CNBC viewers tend to be more affluent and educated. "They're attracted to opinionated, provocative thinkers," says Robins.
As The American Spectator recently observed, perhaps Kudlow and Cramer is "just the acid bath Washington and Wall Street currently need." Cable viewers are voting with their eyeballs. By Marcia Vickers in New York