Jonathan Wald was already planning to return to producing TV news when Hurricane Katrina hit last year. The storm just sped up his timetable. The Emmy-winning former NBC News producer had been developing an evening-news program for CNBC for a December launch. But with the waters rising in New Orleans on Aug. 31, CNBC President Mark Hoffman phoned Wald on Long Island, N.Y., where he was vacationing with his family. Could he have a newscast ready by 7 p.m.?
Wald drove to CNBC’s New Jersey studios and went live that night with Hurricane Katrina: Crisis and Recovery.
“It felt great to be wanted to produce something,” says Wald, 40, who served as executive producer for NBC Nightly News and Today.
Over the next several weeks, Wald eased the show from Katrina coverage into its current form, On the Money. A daily look at the business dimension of popular culture, the show brought viewers back to CNBC’s flagging primetime. Now, as senior VP of business news, he is working to reinvigorate daily programming and refocus the way the network covers the world of business.
Carrying Brokaw’s Bags
Wald—whose father, Richard, was a president of NBC News and a senior VP for ABC News—started as a desk assistant at NBC News in 1983, while attending Columbia University. His first assignment: helping Tom Brokaw carry his luggage.
“I always felt I had to work extra hard,” Wald says. “Once I got my foot in the door, it was up to me to stay there.”
He soon began contributing copy for NBC’s pre-dawn News at Sunrise, and after graduating in 1987, he landed at WBZ, then Boston’s NBC station.
Wald cycled through every production job at WBZ, at one point creating a 7:30 p.m. news roundup during the 1991 Gulf War. For the series finale of Cheers, he broadcast the 11 p.m. news from the Bull & Finch pub, the model for the bar in the NBC sitcom.
Wald returned to NBC News in 1993 as a producer for Brian Williams, then a national correspondent, and, over the next several years, rose to senior broadcast producer for Nightly News as it cemented its ratings dominance.
In August 2000, Wald was named executive producer of Nightly News, a job he held less than a year before he was tapped to succeed Jeff Zucker at Today. Although the program held its morning lead during his stewardship, aggressively covering the 9/11 attacks, Wald left 16 months later amid reports of clashes with hosts Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.
Given the current intensity of the morning competition, he figures he got off easy: “Those jobs, by definition, are meat grinders.”
Still under contract with NBC, Wald began consulting on programming for its cable cousin, CNBC. He helped develop the hit Mad Money, with manic investment guru Jim Cramer, and began working with Hoffman to shore up a primetime schedule that was recovering from failed shows hosted by Dennis Miller and John McEnroe. With On the Money on track to increase the 7 p.m. audience by 32%, Wald assumed his new role in June.
While CNBC’s audience is still off its peak of 343,000 daily viewers in 2000, it has grown 26% in the past year, to an average 211,000. (The network still takes in $250 million in profit.) And Wald believes that CNBC has only sharpened its ability to zero in on the business implications of the news at large.
“Ultimately, it’s aimed at helping the audience make wealth, protect their wealth and understand business,” he says. “It’s like industrial-strength personal finance.”
Another “money” show is in the works—Fast Money, a look at the daily market by four traders—as well as a relaunch of CNBC.com by year’s end.
As for the much-rumored prospect of a competing cable business channel from Fox News Chairman—and onetime CNBC President—Roger Ailes, Wald is unruffled. “It’s not going to change what we do,” he says. “We try to outdo ourselves every day.”
Says Hoffman, “He’s a news guy, and he’s a programmer, and he’s hungry to be in on the action. He jumped right in, and he hasn’t stopped since.”