Financial television networks hitched on to the stock market’s roller-coaster ride with coverage that verged on breathless, sensing it was a defining moment to break through to a larger audience.
“You prepare and build for these kinds of circumstances,” CNBC President Bill Bolster said. “In journalism, you never know when an event is going to happen.”
The market’s dive and stunning rebound may be as significant to cable financial networks CNBC and CNNfn as the Persian Gulf War was in establishing CNN’s credentials as a breaking news network, he said on Tuesday.
Shortly after the market shut down following Monday’s selloff, CNBC set a ratings record with more than 1 million households tuned in. That nearly doubled its previous high of 534,000 households when the Dow hit 8,000 on July 16.
CNBC, with business news by day and talk shows at night, reaches 65 million U.S. homes and was launched in 1989. CNNfn was created in 1995 and reaches only 8.5 million homes, but is available on cable in the financial capital of New York.
Their coverage occasionally spilled over into other networks Monday and Tuesday. Lou Dobbs’ CNNfn coverage was simulcast on CNN, and CNBC’s feed appeared on MSNBC.
Financial news even has a budding star: CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo was booked for her first appearance on David Letterman’s show Tuesday.
The market’s performance was reminiscent of the twists and turns of a sporting event and the coverage often reflected that.
Bartiromo, standing on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and grasping at sheets of paper thrust at her, speed-read numbers of key indicators in a verbal version of the stock ticker that runs at the bottom of the network’s screen.
“It’s going to be pretty choppy and it’s going to be pretty ugly for most of the day,” NBC economics reporter Mike Jensen said as the Dow plunged shortly after opening on Tuesday.
Within an hour, stocks were soaring.
Correspondents occasionally lapsed into industry lingo. Some relied on dubious indicators, like the CNBC reporter who noted that many brokers leaving a New York City investment house for lunch were excitedly talking into cellular phones.
Yet there were attempts to reach out to citizen investors. CNBC’s Bill Griffeth reported that many investors were having trouble reaching brokers by phone and CNNfn had a report on how people in their 20s were reacting to the volatility.
Network executives said they were aware that viewers with less business savvy were tuning in but did not go to extraordinary lengths to talk to them.
“Our mandate at CNNfn is to be comprehensive in our coverage but also be comprehensible,” Dobbs said.
CNN’s ratings peaked at 870,000 households at 4 p.m. EST Monday. Dobbs’ “Moneyline” program at 7 p.m. beat CNBC’s new “Business Center” in households by 653,000 to 372,000. There are no ratings available for CNNfn.
The wide, instantaneous attention television gives to financial news makes the market more accessible than ever before but also puts the networks in the position of being able to affect the story they are covering.
The Wall Street Journal said, for example, that bearish comments made by prominent market strategist Barton Biggs on television Monday helped push the market down.
“There’s no question they have an impact,” said Jessica Reif Cohen, a cable analyst for Merrill Lynch. “It just tends to fan the flames. Our business is disseminating information and analyzing the information. They get it out so quickly to so many people that would never have a chance to hear it.”
Ratings will fade when the markets calm down, but the financial networks may have gained some new regular viewers, said Jeff Flathers, a cable analyst for Paul Kagan and Associates.
“A lot of people are going to remember that CNBC and CNNfn … were there and provided them with up-to-date information,” he said. “It will be imprinted in their minds and become for many of them destination channels.”