Bloomberg TV vs. CNBC – Is It the People, the Culture or the Structure?

CNBC is the leader in financial television in terms of longevity, size, presence and reach. No wonder, the network calls itself “First in Business Worldwide”. It has become synonymous with financial television in the minds of individual investors.

Bloomberg Television is a good financial network as well. Bloomberg as an organization got its start with the Bloomberg machine, a must for every institutional investor. This virtual monopoly enabled the organization to launch Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television.

We have made a conscious effort during the past few months to watch both CNBC and Bloomberg TV. There is no doubt that Bloomberg TV is a very good network. They have competent anchors, they focus on financial markets and they interview experts who provide valuable insight. They have the large resources of Bloomberg News to collect and deliver information and insight.

Yet, Bloomberg TV struggles to gain share among individual investor viewers. Why?

Is it the people, the “talent” at Bloomberg TV?

Bloomberg’s on-air talent, anchors and reporters, are absolutely professional, knowledgeable and good at their job. There has been migration of talent back and forth between Bloomberg TV & CNBC. And we see no upgrade or downgrade of ability or competence in the transition in either direction.  The expertise and content are similar and equal.

Having said this, there is no mistaking a Bloomberg TV show with a CNBC show. The tone, the tenor is very different. This makes the viewer experience different.

Bloomberg Anchors are professional and interact on air with colleagues politely. CNBC anchors are more free-wheeling. They seem to enjoy gently scoring points against their colleagues.  CNBC’s Melissa Lee is always ready to take a jab at her co-anchors. Veteran Joe Kernen has made a career of making fun of his co-anchors and reporters. Russell LeFrak, a real estate billionaire, paid tribute to this style by saying on air that he watches CNBC because of the camaredrie.

You don’t see this free-wheeling behavior on Bloomberg TV. The tenor is just more businesslike. Recently, Erik Schatzker tried to add levity by calling his co-anchor Stephanie Ruhle a “credit girl” only to have her come back sharply by calling him “Canada boy”. It appeared that Ms. Ruhle was not pleased and Schatzker backed off. The rest of show was a formal financial interview with a hedge fund manager.

This is a problem, we think. On most days, Financial TV is downright boring. Endless talk about markets even moves addicts like us to boredom. The easiest way to keep viewers tuned in is to make your anchors more human and personal. CNBC does a far better job of this than Bloomberg TV. That is why there are more personalities on CNBC than on Bloomberg TV.

So it must be the people, the on-air talent, right? Not so fast, as Coach Corso would say on College Game Day.

Is it the Culture?

We act like Lee Corso because we have seen what happens to anchors when they move between Bloomberg TV and CNBC.  Brian Sullivan, a veteran anchor, was coldly professional at Bloomberg TV. The man has gone haywire on CNBC, or so it seems on many days. He engages reporters, battles with Herb Greenberg and even jousts with Jim Cramer. Most of the times, these histrionics have very little to do with the story at hand.

Before him, came Erin Burnett from Bloomberg TV to CNBC. From what we remember of her at Bloomberg TV, she was focused on the story and nasty in digging for information. She moved to CNBC and remade herself into a Girls Gone Wild act.  She talked shoe-cleavage with Jim Cramer and once challenged her co-anchor Mark Haines to an athletic contest. Both Burnett & Sullivan remained professional and competent in their Fin Anchor roles, but they felt encouraged to exhibit their zanier side on CNBC.

Margaret Brennan moved from CNBC to Bloomberg TV where she anchors a daily two-hour show. She is thoroughly professional, competent and an excellent interviewer of serious guests on important topics. But no one can see her whimsical side, her eccentricities. That is for her Twitter persona which is sharper, more edgy and human. In one tweet-exchange, she made fun of CNBC’s Steve Liesman about his habit of shaving at his desk. This Brennan is demonstrably absent on Bloomberg TV. Her TV persona prefers to have long talks with the ever prosaic Al Hunt. Need we say more?

So if anchors can change when they move, it is not people. Is it culture then? Bloomberg is a news organization. The aura is News. Their reporters, anchors are all dedicated to the business of hard news. Like old print journalists, some veteran Bloomberg anchors get stuffy at times with cultivated ‘intellectual’ airs. This is also why Bloomberg TV does an excellent job with long and important interviews.

In contrast, when you watch CNBC, the aura is pure TV. They do have their own ‘intellectually superior’ anchors, but on the whole CNBC anchors enjoy being TV people than journalists. They carry and demonstrate an air of irreverence that comes with TV.

Serious Journalists, by definition, can never carry an irreverent air. They have a sense of mission, a sense of their obligation to inform their uneducated viewers. But this sense of haute oblige tends to be a turnoff on TV. This is why Bloomberg TV sometimes seems stuck in a bygone journalistic era, a sort of a financial PBS if you will.

If simple viewers like us get this difference, surely the highly paid Executives at Bloomberg TV get it too. But getting it and doing something about it are two radically different things. After all, corporate culture starts at the very top of the corporate structure.  

Is it Corporate Structure?

This is not a Harvard Business School case study. We are rather simple-minded viewers. But even we can occasionally get to a logical destination. We see Bloomberg TV trapped within the Bloomberg News organization, within the juggernaut created by the Bloomberg machine. Bloomberg TV inherits its culture from its corporate parent.

In contrast, CNBC is not at all weighed down by NBC news. You rarely see NBC editors being interviewed on CNBC while you routinely see Bloomberg News editors interviewed on Bloomberg TV. Apart from the common letters in their names, there is no visual or content similarity between CNBC and NBC.  CNBC is run as an independent network. This provides CNBC the freedom to be more innovative than Bloomberg TV. This is CNBC’s greatest edge, its unique advantage.

It was CNBC that
first hired investing professionals like Larry Kudlow and Jim Cramer as
anchors. It was CNBC that launched Fast Money, the first ESPN like
financial show. They have used the Fast Money format to launch Options
Action and Money in Motion to focus on Options and Foreign Currencies.
The best tribute to CNBC actually came in the form of a rebuke from CEO
guest Jim Tisch who, during a rather unruly Squawk Box show, objected “this is CNBC, not ESPN.” 

most vivid evidence of the difference in the two TV cultures can be seen on their websites. Bloomberg TV doesn’t
even have its own website. Bloomberg TV shows, Bloomberg Videoclips
live as step children within the news-dominated, editor-regulated
Bloomberg.Com. Look at it. It is purely a news site. Now look at
CNBC.Com. It is purely a TV site.

So, in our opinion, if the Bloomberg organization wants Bloomberg TV to compete seriously in the individual viewer space, they need to allow Bloomberg TV to live freely, to breathe its own air. The first step, an inexpensive initial step, would be to let Bloomberg TV create its own web identity, a website that fits a Television network, – a network that understands it needs to entertain while it provides information.

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