CNBC, Take Two

Back in the roaring '90s, CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo was the face of business news--the "Money Honey" whom everyone on Wall Street wanted to sit down with for a sexy chat about convertible subordinated debentures (or some such). But then the tech bubble burst, and CNBC's fortunes sank with the market. Struggling to recover, the GE-owned network seemed dazed and confused, hiring bad-boy tennis great John McEnroe and dubious others for primetime talk shows that failed. Now the market's back--and so are CNBC and Bartiromo. Just last week she snagged "gets" with Treasury boss Henry Paulson and embattled Yahoo CEO Terry Semel. "I do feel a great reception when I'm calling people to come on the program," she says. Things are even more fun for CNBC's unlikely star Jim Cramer, manic host of "Mad Money," a stock-touting show that's inexplicably won him a cult-like following on college campuses. "Suddenly, I get good tables at restaurants," he says. "But my 12-year-old daughter is relentlessly asking, 'What's so interesting about your autograph, and why didn't anyone want it before?' "

The answer: business news had ceased to be cool, especially to average Janes and Joes who lost their shirts in the market crash. Misery has been the bottom line in business media for the past few years, with falling ad revenues and layoffs. Even the housing boom and stock-market rebound failed to give much of a lift to the likes of Fortune and BusinessWeek, which have lost readers, and ad dollars, to the Web. The Wall Street Journal unveiled a major cost-cutting redesign last week that will shrink the paper to 12 inches wide from 15 inches (dare we call it The Small Street Journal?).

But CNBC has rediscovered its inner Gordon Gekko. With a new team led by president Mark Hoffman, the network unspooled a lineup of dynamic new shows anchored by young, smart journalists: "Street Signs" features market-moving news delivered by up-and-coming money honey Erin Burnett, 30. "On the Money" is a wrap-up of the day's news, delivered with a business twist by Dylan Ratigan, 34, CNBC's closest thing to a Scud Stud. In prime time, the network spotlights its rock stars, such as Cramer, and original documentaries like "The Age of Wal-Mart," which won a Peabody Award. And last week the network relaunched CNBC.com with a new video-rich layout. (NEWSWEEK has a strategic relationship with NBC.)

The makeover has caught on with viewers. Ratings are soaring among its target audience of 25- to 54-year-olds, up almost 60 percent from last year. Advertisers are following suit, anxious to reach an audience that, while relatively tiny, is perhaps the most affluent in television. Citing data from Mendelsohn Media Research, CNBC pegs median household income of its core viewers at $184,000, with an average net worth of $1.6 million. The network expects record revenue in excess of $450 million and profit of about $275 million this year. "There's a real renaissance at CNBC," says Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal Television, which includes the business network. "It is once again one of the real jewels of the company."

The new energy is palpable at CNBC's headquarters in leafy Englewood Cliffs, N.J. As cameras roll on a recent morning, bantering anchors on the set of "Squawk Box" warm up viewers for a day of heavy capitalist pursuits. There's repartee about the investment impact of Taco Bell's E. coli outbreak. Colorful graphs and charts of "Fair Value Indexes" flash onto monitors with eye-blinking speed. Elsewhere, producers are preparing "Power and Money," a new series featuring segments on hedge and private-equity funds. Other staffers are putting final touches on a business-news magazine--Business Nation, CNBC tells NEWSWEEK--which will be anchored by David Faber, once dubbed "The Brain" by his co-workers. The new shows are part of a strategy to expand beyond the stock-market coverage that dominated CNBC before the crash. "Why are you so obsessed with the stock market?" president Hoffman was asked frequently by viewers after he landed the job in February 2005.

Other changes aim to make for more riveting TV. As many as 110 guests now appear daily, up from about 40 before, fostering what Hoffman, a veteran NBC exec, describes as "creative intellectual combat." The quest for tension is evident at the morning news meeting. "Where's your debate on whether pension funds should invest in hedge funds?" asks Jeff Wald, CNBC's top news exec and a former head producer at the "Today" show. CNBC is decidedly antiregulation because it's generally bad for business, says Wald, adding later, "We're unabashed capitalists."

One fellow unabashed capitalist, Rupert Murdoch, isn't about to let CNBC retain its business-TV monopoly, and plans next year to launch a Fox business-news channel. Business TV isn't for the meek: Time Warner's CNNfn shut down in 2004 after a nine-year struggle. But if anyone can take on the newly resurgent CNBC, it's News Corp.'s Murdoch and his formidable television news czar, Roger Ailes. "I would assume they will do a bold, colorful network with a lot of opinions modeled on the big brother Fox News Channel," says Steve Friedman, the morning-news chief for CBS and a former CNBC consultant.

CNBC execs and their bosses at NBC Universal swear, somewhat unconvincingly, that they aren't focused on Murdoch's plans, now at least two years in the making. "If anyone else wants to come into the space, it's in the best shape [ever]," says Zucker. So, for that matter, are Bartiromo and the rest of CNBC's talent. We might as well call them the "Comeback Cuties."