The network is understandably seeing record ratings, thanks to everyone from anxious office drones to stay-at-home moms who wouldn't necessarily know the Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate) from a Labrador, all tuning in to monitor the nation's financial meltdown--and its effect on the value of their 401(k) accounts.
While the gallows humor continues, CNBC isn't exactly laughing all the way to the bank. Despite the yuks and the huge numbers, the network is now in the process of slashing as much as 10% from its budget. People at the network, says one staffer, "are scared s---less."
It is a different kind of corporate irony: As CNBC enjoys a new level of visibility and is about to launch a massive new marketing campaign to capitalize on the momentum, it must do so while navigating through the same flailing economy that has sent the network's proverbial stock soaring.
Since September, when the federal government took over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Lehman Brothers collapsed, CNBC has seen the best ratings of its 19-year history, breaking half a million viewers in mid-September for its business day programming (5 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and finishing the month with an average of 373,000 viewers, an increase of 46% compared to Sept. 2007. Among news' sales demographic of 25-54 year olds, business day programming averaged just over 100,000 viewers for the month, an increase from numbers that often leveled off in the five figures.
In October, the news was even better. CNBC averaged just over 500,000 viewers for the month for business day with 150,000 in the demo. So far, the network is up 66% in the fourth quarter compared to the same period last year.
As CNBC executives like to point out, these ratings represent in-home viewing only and do not take into account the sets tuned to CNBC on trading floors and in offices, airport lounges and health clubs. Indeed, walk into any New York City gym these days and CNBC has seemingly replaced ESPN in the cardio theater.
The network has generally been protected from company-wide contractions at parent company NBC Universal, thanks to what have been impressive profit margins (due to some of the highest CPM rates in television) and looming competition from the Fox Business Network, which launched in October 2007. That is, until now.