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CNBC's Midlife Crisis

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Once upon a time, like maybe 2-1/2 years ago, just as the financial crisis was starting to deliver a series of swift kicks to the stock market's nether regions, CNBC was -- and had been, for years -- a terrific, informative, "must-watch" business news channel. Squawk Box in the morning was a fun, funny, and informative pre-market potpourri of economic and company-specific business news, information, features, and light banter. Power Lunch was two hours of the same, at mid-day -- different cast of characters, same mind-set. Market close brought a recap of the day's events, plus post-market earnings announcements. Throughout the day there was a procession of talking heads, usually analyst sell side and usually bullish, but that was to be expected. Listen with a dose of skepticism, but maybe get some good ideas. And stay in touch with the latest trends and company news. CNBC, Wall Street Journal, Barron's, Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser, all manna in an investor's paradise.

Then something happened. I don't know exactly what caused it. But CNBC changed. For the worse, and hasn't looked back. Maybe several somethings happened. Not sure. Maybe it was the shattering of investor confidence in Wall Street, the devastating losses to folks' 401ks, despite daily insistence by the talking heads that the financials were a screaming buy and the sell-off was overdone, and thus a big ratings downturn. Maybe it was the proliferation of infotainment channels on cable tv, where to survive you needed an edge, conflict, confrontation, shouting -- not just talking, but shouting -- heads, to be noticed in an increasingly crowded media landscape. Maybe, more specifically, it was growing competition from Fox Business Network, which epitomized the new, opinionated, strident, "my way or the highway", brass knuckles form of business journalism. But having swallowed the old Fnn 20 years ago and solidified its position as the preeminent voice in TV business programming since then, in its mid-life, about two years ago, CNBC morphed into something I no longer recognize most of the time.

When did every sneeze or cough by a company or from Washington become "Breaking News"? When did it become necessary for the anchors to say, at the beginning of almost every program, "we have a lot to talk about" today. Meaning, if they didn't say it, there wasn't much going on that day? When did every interview become an "exclusive" interview (what, before that, they invited Larry King and Barbara Walters to join them)? When did normal programming morph into "special editions" of Power Lunch, simply because they were going to have an "exclusive" interview with a CEO who hadn't given an interview in, can you imagine, over three weeks?

When did 3-4 pm become "the most important hour of the trading day"? So, every other hour is just chopped liver? But I'm still supposed to watch then, right? Why did they start asking, at 4 pm, "do you know where your money is"? (OK, Madoff's in jail, what do you know I don't know about where my money is?) And why aren't you telling me?) When did the anchors become "personalities", more important than the people they were interviewing? (The other day, they were supposed to get parting words from their daily Squawk Box guest host, but Joe Kernan spent so much time talking about his hair, they ran out of time and said, "next time"). Why did it suddenly become so important for me to know what Maria Bartiromo's market views are? Why did "In Cramer We Trust" become an unofficial slogan of CNBC? When did Fast Money plus Mad Money expand to fill 1/4 of the day's programming, breathless prose for day-traders and options traders, fawning interviews with CEOs, and "buy, buy, buy" stocks with PE ratios of 75, 100 or higher? With no accountability, to anyone. Is that it, CNBC now caters to Main Street day-traders, as well as their staple of Wall Street traders and CEOs? I know, Cramer says he simply wants to educate his viewers. And that's why he whips them, and himself, into a frenzy every evening. And why you have to pay to get access to many services on his website, which he touts every day. I do wonder, does anyone, anyone, stop to ask whether this is a good way to prime the public for a lifetime of serious investing, right after the worst financial crisis in 80 years? But I digress.

When did rants replace analysis? When did every guest have to be asked his/her opinion of QE2 (Fed quantitative easing), the deficit, and whether President Obama is anti-business, beating the issues to death, mercilessly, each and every day, and then beating them some more? When did certain guest hosts (Michelle Caruso-Cabrera and the departed-but-not-lamented Denis Kneale were the worst offenders) start asking pointed questions and then interrupting their guests to give the answers themselves? Are guests just props? Why is Bob Pisani hawking new CNBC software for "only $29.95", or a free trial, to viewers (just this week)? Why are CNBC employees touting Federal Express as a great investment for the better part of a week and then broadcasting from Fedex locations twice within a week (last Tuesday and this coming Monday, promos on the hour)? Isn't that just a tad too cozy, or, dare I utter the phrase, even a conflict of interest? Of course, by that standard CNBC would be a perpetual conflict of interest machine, since they constantly interview analysts who recommend companies that are big CNBC advertisers. But again I digress.

Isn't anybody else noticing this? Am I crazy? Has the world changed, and I'm a fuddy-duddy, stuck in another universe? Is this the "new normal"? I used to think I was Everyman or a good litmus test for what the average guy or girl was thinking. But the silence on CNBC's transmogrification (a 20th century word, perhaps) is deafening. Isn't anybody else tired of this? In the past 2-1/2 years, I feel the CNBC universe has turned upside down, and no one has noticed. I'm no longer informed by the opinionated program anchors, I'm told what they think about the major political/business issues of the day. To be honest, I don't much care what they think. With all respect, that's not why I watch. There are exceptions, of course, and you can see those anchors squirm as the new journalists wax, rant and polemicize. But they are in the minority. And I do still get long stretches where CNBC actually focuses on business and company news, and then they remain very, very good.

So why do I still watch, you might ask? Why not vote with my remote? Good questions. Well, in truth, I now watch increasingly less. First, I just turned down the volume. Then I started turning the channel. Just the other day, I saw David Einhorn, head of Greenlight Capital, on CNBC and then a few days later on Bloomberg. The Bloomberg segment with Einhorn was highly informative. Rather than asking him his views on tax cuts and QE2, which is what CNBC does, they actually talked about his holdings and his investment philosophy, at length. How refreshing, I thought! I learned something! Such a feeling!

But it's like an abusive relationship, me and CNBC. I've been in it so long, it's hard to extricate myself. And, for the longest time, I failed to recognize how increasingly unhappy I was in the relationship. I was saddened when Bill Griffeth took his sabbatical a year ago, I felt like Sue Herrera did. Yes, they had become part of my daily life, they were "family", I was hooked. Having lived with many of them for between 10 and 20 years, I didn't want to be the one to leave. I don't want to change channels. I want them to change. Back to what they were before, funny and informative, but nothing more. Not the story.

So why isn't anybody writing about this? Are they too busy day-trading? Speaking of which, I've probably missed a half-dozen breaking stories by now, and the next edition of Fast Money will be on again soon, so I gotta go, don't want to miss out. Maybe they are getting to me, after all. I still think, though, something is seriously off the tracks at CNBC nowadays. And I still hope that someday soon, somewhere, someone is going write about how things have changed for the worse at CNBC, so they can see the error of their ways, and we can return to -- the way we were.