CNN: All the News That’s Fit to Show

Are Americans willing to watch business news if it is unpleasant?

April 29, 2003

Are Americans willing to watch business news if it is unpleasant?

For much of the 1990s, business and high finance were a national spectacle of epic proportions. In the late 1990s and into the new millennium, things got even more interesting.

After a flurry of corporate scandals, one felt positively reminded of then-New York District Attorney Rudy Giuliani's anti-mafia crusades in the 1980s and the early 1990s.

Indeed, there seemed to be daily revelations. Starting with Enron, the quintessential bubble company of the 1990s, some of the top names in U.S. and international business have been implicated in illegal and unethical behavior.

The mighty that have fallen or tottered in recent years include Arthur Andersen, Global Crossing, AOL, Bristol Myers, Ahold — and the list seems to go on and on.

During the stock market boom of the 1990s, several news channels and programs had emerged on U.S. cable television specifically devoted to covering business and finance. Business for once had become an exciting story to report.

You would think that these financial news outlets would tackle the ongoing story of boardroom corruption and the resulting losses for millions of stock investors with the same vigor as they had during the boom years.

Yet, surprisingly, television audiences don't seem to want to watch bad business news. And all those finance-oriented TV channels — concerned as they are with keeping advertisers happy and audiences satisfied — have made little effort to fight the tide. Instead, they have been showing the viewers exactly what the viewers wanted to see.

Take CNN's "Moneyline" program. Ostensibly devoted to business, the program is hosted by Lou Dobbs, one of the pioneers of the financial market news format.

However, if Lou Dobbs is where you want to get your business news, you'd better be patient. The first piece of "hard" business news appeared 23 minutes into the hour. What preceded it was not just reports about Iraq, but plenty of other general interest news without relevance for investors, including abortion politics and other Supreme Court decisions.

And this was before there was a war going on in Iraq. The problem is that on Moneyline business news had been put on the back burner even well before the outbreak of the war in Iraq.

Focusing on the military conflict has been an excuse to get away from what the channels no longer wanted to cover, anyway — that is, frustrating business stories.

With the stock market performing, at best, like an eternal flatliner, audiences aren't much interested in business and finance.

But ever since the financial markets' bubble burst in March 2000, things just haven't been the same. Why? Because the audiences didn't want to watch the reports of faltering stocks and corporate scandals.

CNBC, which emerged as the winner in the ratings game during the late 1990s stock market craze, has been losing audiences ever since.

Its Nielsen ratings, tracking the share of U.S. households tuned to the channel, fell by 50% between 2002 and 2003.

Clearly, Americans want their business news to be pleasant. Watching your investment portfolios, savings or retirement accounts getting decimated is not an uplifting pastime. For the cable channels, it's much more appealing to track the successes of the coalition forces in the Iraq conflict.

The war gave these channels an opportunity to return to their hyped roots. After all, the battle in Iraq could be told in much the same fashion the stock market story was reported.

Daily — if not hourly — updates inform the viewers of ever more spectacular advances. Good news abounds and the respective punditry has ample opportunity to bask in their presumed expertise's popularity.

So what are the cable news channels supposed to do now that fighting in Iraq is largely over? They are, in essence, back to square one with no more sensational war coverage to distract the viewers from the drudgery of getting corporate America back on track.

Hard-hitting investigative reports and business news programs could be an important factor in triggering the self-healing forces of the U.S. financial system. Once resuscitated — and thus strengthened — financial TV would see its viewers come back eventually.

But few media outlets can afford to take such a gamble. After all, their programming is underwritten by advertising — and advertisers are rarely willing to wait for TV channels to deliver an audience some time in a distant future.

Pity Lou Dobbs, who came back to CNN after his boyhood dream, Space.com, went belly-up. He started the whole financial news phenomenon, and when he left to found a dot.com start-up, he was at the height of his popularity.

But since returning, he has been increasingly turned by CNN into yet another, rather undistinguished newscaster on a program which for some reason he still insists on calling "Moneyline" — probably for old times' sake.