After years in a marriage of convenience with Microsoft, CNBC is breaking free. The business-news network is launching a multimillion-dollar revamp of its Website on Dec. 4 in an effort to attract its wealthy TV audience—and the advertisers that covet them—with a comprehensive online resource for financial news and video. But while the scope and functionality of the site are impressive, CNBC may be too late to the online party to lure new users away from competing financial sites.
Since 2001, CNBC has licensed its content to Microsoft's MSN MoneyCentral site. As it prepares to go it alone online, the network is operating from a position of strength. While other networks are expanding online in pursuit of ad dollars flowing away from TV, CNBC is bringing in more money than ever, posting record pre-tax earnings of roughly $275 million, according to published reports.
“We've had terrific dividends, and we're making a big investment in the Web,” says CNBC President Mark Hoffman. “We're creating compelling new tools along with our core competency.”
Even as the network's parent company, NBC Universal, planned cuts to its news division during the past year, CNBC hired 55 staffers to develop the site. But, in keeping with the company's effort to streamline news production, the Web unit will integrate with the TV outfit, sharing infrastructure as well as producers and on-air talent.
Clips and Live footage
The unit will funnel at least 75 new video clips a day to the free, ad-supported CNBC site, as well as three to eight hours daily of uncut live footage of business events, such as an unedited speech by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
CNBC talent will host twice-hourly Market in a Minute Webcasts and conduct Web-only interviews with its TV guests. Correspondents and hosts will blog about the goings-on of the network.
The site's search function enables users to troll simultaneously for articles, charts and contextual video on a company or a person. And they can customize a scrolling ticker to receive alerts about when particular companies or executives will be featured on the network.
CNBC is betting such features, along with the network's strong brand, will draw current viewers and others to the Web, although one possible downside is that the content will no longer get traffic from MSN.
In addition to the free site—which counts Ameritrade, E-trade and Fidelity Investments among its charter sponsors—CNBC also hopes to entice users to CNBC Plus, a subscription service. For $9.95 a month, users can stream live feeds of the channel in the U.S., Europe and Asia and access CNBC's archive of more than 15,000 clips.
CNBC has been a dominant TV brand in business news since the mid 1990s, when the tech boom was gaining steam, but found itself lost in the herd when financial information began to migrate to the Web. While CNBC took up with Microsoft, after NBC's Internet division flamed out with the dotcom bust, sites including Bloomberg, Yahoo! Finance and Forbes were accumulating devotees who established personalized portfolios and bonds of familiarity.
“It would not be fair to say the category is defined forever,” says Merrill Brown, founder/principal of media consulting company MMB Media, who was the founding editor in chief and later senior VP of MSNBC.com. “But the challenges are enormous. It's a very competitive situation and a very crowded category, and it's going to be very hard for them to get into a leadership position.”
Moreover, the site's embedded Flash video player cannot yet run on Mac systems and, according to David Payne, senior VP/general manager of CNN.com, may alienate the PC users who prefer to watch on a downloadable player in a separate window.
Both were concerns that users expressed to CNN when the network launched Pipeline, its subscription broadband service ($2.95/month, $24.95/year), almost exactly a year ago, says Payne.
He and others also question whether live feeds are enough to attract subscribers. But Hoffman contends they could be valuable to viewers without TVs in their offices or who may be traveling abroad.
The network will offer a free seven-day trial for CNBC Plus and will promote the site with TV spots and ads in financial publications.