These days, I take in a fair amount of CNBC, because hey, I like to know how I am losing my money. I’ve been a viewer for years but have been heeding closer attention of late. Plus the high-definition feed cycles through some solid charts and graphs.
CNBC, which stands for Consumer News and Business Channel, just marked its 20-year anniversary and remains a bona fide cash-cow for GE. I haven’t seen the latest Nielsens, but am fairly sure it hasn’t stuttered or blinked since Fox Business went on-air in 2007.
Aside from the delightful Erin Burnett and lovably grouchy Mark Haines, much of the daytime schedule melds into a 7-hour interchangeable mix of commentators and satellite-link-ups with fund managers. That’s what I expect on 24-hour cable news; there is simply too much time to fill.
Regardless, I have concerns with the network. But let me begin with what my concerns are not. It’s not that CNBC is biased to be reflexively conservative (which I don’t believe to be true… even though there is a correspondent named Courtney Reagan, and it is highly suspect that she pronounces her last name with an “-ee” and not an “-ay” sound). It’s also not that they are unabashedly pro-business (seriously, what else should the business network be?) And I’m fine with Rick Santelli; months before his much-YouTubed populist tiff I thought, “Y’know, this guy is always incredibly happy and passionate about bonds. He absolutely loves his job.” (Larry Kudlow is another story. He is un-lovably grouchy.)
No, my concern with CNBC is something that they do everyday during each show, is a disservice to their audience, and nobody ever talks about: they do not draw a distinction between trading and investing. And there is a huge difference between the two when it comes to listening to advice and making decisions about your money.
Most people know trades are the hour-to-hour, day-to-day, week-to-week plays made by eager financial minds, whereas investments are more year-by-year moves to see a long-term strategy of growth, appreciation, or capital preservation come to fruition. But when the crew on Power Lunch is teeming with joy over Toyota’s 3-point jump or recommending Hewlett-Packard because it just came down a buck, there is no context or differentiation. They ignore it, or inexplicably figure you will know.
With relative ease, Sue Herera could say, “I think Research In Motion is a short-term play, 2 months, tops” or “Google’s gotten beaten down but consider waiting a day or two as it bottoms out because it could become a great 2 or 3-year play.” The only show I have seen that has consistently started to use more trading-coded language is Fast Money. And one of its hosts is a former NFL linebacker, with a business-in-front, party-in-the-back approach to hair.
Perhaps the reason CNBC doesn’t do this is because it ruins the illusion. If you don’t intrinsically know whether the recommendation is meant as a day-trade or an investment, you shouldn’t be watching.
Which flows into a related theme of CNBC’s two-decade history: it occurs to me that some things about the network are never quite made explicit. Who exactly is CNBC talking to? Who is the audience?
It sounds like they are catering to a Wharton-educated, C-level crew who sops up that market hucksterism and biz lingo. But, there are not enough top-tier execs and money managers to make that a profitable viewership model.
Rather, the brilliance of watching CNBC is that unless you work for Goldman Sachs or run a hedge fund, as they dig into what is affecting 30-year T-bills, or killing the price of light sweet crude, or raising the price of Lowe’s, you never feel like you’re the intended audience (exception: Mad Money).
Yet, it’s this very feeling that compels you to keep watching. And the beauty, the irony, is that in reality, you, average citizen, run-of-the-mill investor, are the target demographic! And, in many cases you actually watch because you think are not, that you are stealing a look at this “inside baseball” discussion. This demographic voyeurism keeps you coming back. And that is smart business.