Market sinks, CNBC soars

An ill wind blows the financial-news network some good

While portfolio managers were agonizing over the stock market's sudden dive last week, CNBC executives were gleefully tallying up their successes in what has been a tough TV-ad-sales environment.

CNBC estimates 15% growth in ad sales for first quarter 2001 over first quarter 2000, according to John Kelly, senior vice president of ad sales for NBC Cable Networks. That's considerably less than the growth CNBC saw in the 2000 first quarter, he says: "The growth is not as robust in this environment. It's a tough market."

But while the market tumbled last week, CNBC's ratings took off.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, viewership from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. was up more than 60% over the same period last year, with an average of more than 400,000 cable households tuning in. Viewership for its early-evening half-hour, Business Center, was up 55%, to 339,000 households, on Wednesday and 29%, to 334,000 households, on Thursday.

It soundly thumped its prime competition, CNN's Moneyline, which pulled 218,000 households Wednesday and 259,000 Thursday

That followed a fairly flat February, when overall viewership was up only 2%.

There has been a considerable amount of client-dollar turnover, Kelly notes, with traditional brokerages driving the train and online stock sellers slacking off. "There has been an absolute churn in our client base."

But in the midst of last week's market mauling, CNBC fielded a call from a major broker to discuss increasing its exposure on the cable net. Kelly explains, "There's a message they want to deliver about what's going on right now."

Whatever that message is, it will add to CNBC's ad coffers, which are growing in response to an upward trend in viewership that began in earnest four years ago. Average viewership for its business-day programming, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., went from 148,000 households per day, in 1997, to 241,000 households, in 1998. It rose to 332,000 households last year, and it now stands at 363,000 households per day for 2001 as it cultivates an audience of market watchers. Kelly says, "We talk about our viewers as users who come to us for information and then react to it."