Jim Cramer Is Going Mad
TV host may have lost his mind, but he has found lots of viewers
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/31/2005 8:00:00 PM
Bounding around the set to heavy-metal music, Jim Cramer is shooting the first live telecast of his CNBC show Mad Money. The program mixes elements from professional wrestling, infomercial pitching and hyperkinetic game shows, all the while dispensing stock tips to couch-potato investors. Cramer, a balding 50-year-old in a rumpled shirt and goatee, spews sports analogies and slams sound- effects buttons like an overcaffeinated drive-time disk jockey. An adoring audience—ranging from students to seniors, many wearing Cramerholic T-shirts and clutching his books—clamor to fire questions at this unlikely TV idol. Mopping the bulging veins on his head with a bandana, Cramer begs the crowd for more questions.
“Hit me! Hit me! HIT ME!” he shrieks in a thick Philly accent.
Surely, some in the industry would like to do just that. The hot-tempered ex-money manager, co-founder of TheStreet.com, and pundit for business publications and TV shows, has had a spate of public feuds and developed a reputation in some circles as an egomaniacal monster: He has been known in past jobs to throw phones and computers in fits of fury. The former co-host of CNBC's somber business program Kudlow & Cramer, he's reinvented an on-screen persona for Mad Money, combining his schtick with a kooky format to enliven CNBC, if not business news as a whole.
“It's not Anderson Cooper interviewing Tucker Carlson about Jon Stewart,” says Cramer from the green room in Englewood, N.J., as he pours his third Starbucks refill before 9 a.m. “It's not interviewing analysts who don't know jack, or CEOs who are instructed not to say anything. It is an antithetical show, and I stake my ground on it.”
CNBC execs are pleased by Mad Money thus far. Since debuting in March, the program has boosted the struggling financial-news network's ratings at 6 p.m. by 68%, averaging 170,000 total viewers. More than 236,000 tuned in for the town-hall–style live telecast, 38% above the show's average. A bright spot among CNBC's low-rated prime time castoffs, including most recently Dennis Miller and Topic A With Tina Brown, Mad Money airs at 6, 9 and midnight—ensuring that viewers on both coasts see it in prime.
Last November, Cramer, who put himself through Harvard Law School after finishing undergrad there and working as a newspaper reporter, faced a decision: renew his contract with Kudlow & Cramer, where he was dissatisfied with its middling ratings, or return to the world of money management. He opted for neither, instead brainstorming a concept for a new program and then going up the CNBC ladder to pitch it. After being soundly rejected, he begged his way into a meeting at the top of NBC's food chain, with NBC TV networks chief Jeff Zucker.
“I told Jeff, 'Listen, I'm a manic, overachieving, competitive dollar sign,” Cramer says. “Unleash me, and I'll bring you the goods, or I'll die trying. I think he wanted to see if I'd blow myself up.”
Thus far, Zucker seems happy to have taken the risk. “He's a character, and in television, characters rule,” says Zucker. “In cable, outlandish characters really rule.”
“CNBC's Bread and Butter”
Cramer's outlandish ways—the live show saw him peel off a straitjacket, then pull on a lab coat to “doctor” up stock picks in a segment called “Am I Nuts?”—prompt some to question the quality of his finance guidance. A camp of supporters maintains that sound investment wisdom lies behind his manic delivery, while some say the man behind Mad Money is, well, simply mad. Among the former is Washington Post media writer and CNN host Howard Kurtz, who profiled Cramer in his book The Fortune Tellers: “Cramer brings the kind of fierce intensity you rarely see on television, and it happens to be on a subject—the stock market—that is CNBC's bread and butter.”
Cramer has an obvious fan in CNBC President Mark Hoffman: “[Jim] fits what CNBC's about: real-time business coverage of actionable information.”
But what Kurtz calls intensity, some might call insanity. Cramer has made his share of enemies, and some on the message boards dedicated to him lambaste his predictions. “Thank you for greasing the plank for the rest of my money,” posted John R. Gordon. “I am a low income person who just lost 3k+ on this trade ... Thank you for giving my money to the insiders.”
While CNBC would not offer details on Cramer's stock-prediction track record, he has had his share of lucrative hits, such as recommending Kmart at $40, only to see it climb to $157 within a year. But he has also had some colossal misses, including what he describes as a $17 million loss in one day on Cendant, when the travel/real-estate-services giant was charged with fraud. Cramer reviews his misfires on a Mad Money mea culpa segment called “Cramer vs. Cramer.”
He's also open about bad calls he has made in life, including not attaching a disclaimer to a 1995 column he wrote in SmartMoney in which he touted stocks he owned, prompting an SEC investigation. (Mad Money runs such a disclaimer, and Cramer does not currently own any stocks, instead managing a charitable trust, whose trades CNBC must clear.) He also fought a very nasty contract battle with Fox News chief Roger Ailes, when Cramer wanted out of his TheStreet.com program in the late 1990s.
Comfortably settled at CNBC, Cramer hasn't lost all the structure from his high-octane hedge-fund routine. He wakes at 4 a.m. each day to read newspapers, then crafts an outline for the day's program, which he reworks right up to show time. Despite his on-screen histrionics, Cramer claims to have mellowed off the set. He makes more time for fishing, relaxing with his wife and two daughters, ages 12 and 14, and tending to his pumpkin patch.
“I have a pond that I stocked three years ago,” he says, reclining on a couch at CNBC. “I tell the kids it's the magic pond: You can't help but catch something.”
And he's pleased to be working for everyday investors instead of Wall Street fat cats. “Anybody who has worked only with rich people has no idea how much fun it is to work with regular people,” he says. “This is what I wanna do with my life: Educate people, entertain people, and help 'em make money.”
stockTagger - 7/27/2007 3:59:00 AM EDT
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