There were moments when, if you closed your eyes, you'd have sworn that you had tuned in to Geraldo. Tabloid newsman Richard Kaplan was offering a cable-TV audience fresh details about Presidential candidate Bill Clinton's alleged womanizing. His tidbits weren't all that dramatic. Kaplan, the editor of Star magazine, was giving the Jan. 30 interview mostly to peddle a story that ran three days later in his tabloid.
More interesting than the message was the medium: Kaplan was appearing as a guest on CNBC, a 24-hour cable network known more for its stock quotes than salacious gossip. "We do a lot of things that are eye-opening," says Tom Rogers, president of NBC Inc.'s cable division, owner of CNBC.
That may come as a surprise to many viewers who still know CNBC as the network with the stock tape spooling across the bottom of the TV screen. But CNBC is recasting its image froma nuts-and-bolts financial-news channel into a network offering information on everything from initial public offerings to interpersonal relationships. On Mar. 9, CNBC will roll out a $20 million marketing campaign to drive home its jazzier image. The ads will even plug a new talk show that deals with human sexuality.
FUZZY FOCUS. It's a long way from the old CNBC, a no-frills network whose full name, Consumer News & Business Channel, hardly raised pulse rates. The three-year-old network began changing its image last May when it bought and absorbed its prime competitor, Financial News Network Inc. CNBC won FNN after a spirited bidding war with Dow Jones & Co. and Westinghouse Broadcasting Inc. that drove the price up to $154 million. The deal instantly made CNBC a major player: The network picked up most of FNN's 35 million households. Now reaching a potential 45.3 million households, CNBC is only 12.7 million behind Cable News Network.
But if the FNN deal brought CNBC access to a bigger audience, it also further muddled the network's identity. Already an odd mix of business coverage and lifestyle programming, CNBC has been struggling to integrate FNN's hard-news focus. "We haven't created a true umbrella image for CNBC," concedes network President Albert F. Barber.
So CNBC hired BBDO Worldwide to create a new logo and ads that play the network up as a source for all sorts of news and information. Marketing Director Caroline Vanderlip says the new logo also stresses the NBC in CNBC. The old logo, she says, made some viewers think CNBC was an offshoot of CNN.
Barber hopes this positioning will broaden CNBC's appeal beyond brokers and executives. CNBC's daytime programs draw a respectable 0.3 rating from A.C. Nielsen Co. And CNBC's actual daytime viewership is higher, since Nielsen doesn't measure those who watch in offices. Problem is, CNBC hasn't yet figured out how to keep those viewers watching once they get home. In prime time, CNBC's rating falls to a paltry 0.1. By contrast, CNN's 9 p.m. talk show, Larry King Live, routinely draws a 0.8 and sometimes cracks 1.0.
NO STAR. CNBC's Lilliputian ratings have prevented it from attracting lucrative prime-time advertising. Ninety percent of the network's ad dollars come in daytime, when financial-services marketers such as Fidelity Investments take advantage of low airtime prices to ply viewers with spots urging them to dial toll-free numbers. Barry Fischer, a media buyer at Wells Rich Greene/BDDP, says the network must upgrade its prime-time programs to lure more blue-chip advertisers.
The trouble is, CNBC still doesn't have a marquee attraction on the order of Larry King. Its main prime-time offering is The Real Story, a two-hour talk show featuring personalities such as John McLaughlin and Jack Anderson. Cable-industry observers say the show has improved, but some insiders say it isn't strong enough to anchor the prime-time schedule.
Next month, to coincide with the marketing campaign, CNBC will rearrange the prime-time lineup it beams from its studios in Fort Lee, N.J. The Real Story will concentrate on harder news issues, while CNBC will add two new programs: Real Life and Real Personal. Real Life will offer softer lifestyle coverage, and Real Personal will feature talk about relationships. Barber says it won't be a CNBC version of Love Connection. But he adds: "People from Kinsey Institute could be on the show."
Plenty is riding on such decisions. Larry Gerbrandt, a cable analyst at Paul Kagan Associates, estimates that CNBC has run up at least $60 million in operating losses from 1989 through 1991, on top of the $154 million for FNN. Barber says CNBC will break even this year on a cash-flow basis. And he predicts the network will recoup its FNN investment within five years. To meet that goal, CNBC will have to offer more than just a peek at the Star's next scoop.