Something funny happened when last August CNBC hired access journalist extraordinaire Andrew Sorkin to spiff up its 6-9 am block also known as Squawk Box: nothing. At least, nothing from a secular viewership basis, because while the block saw a brief pick up in viewership driven by the concurrent (first of many) US debt ceiling crisis and rating downgrade, it has been a downhill slide ever since. In fact, as the chart below shows, the Nielsen rating for the show's core 25-54 demo just slid to multi-year lows. And as NY Daily News, the seemingly ceaseless slide has forced CNBC to start panicking: "CNBC insiders tell us executives at the cable business channel are “freaking out” because viewership levels are down essentially across-the-board, particularly with its marquee shows, “Squawk Box” and “Closing Bell." “Their biggest attractions have become their biggest losers,” says one TV industry insider familiar with the cable channel’s numbers. According to Nielsen ratings obtained by Gatecrasher, from April 2011 to April 2012, “Squawk Box” is down 16 percent in total viewers and 29 percent in the important 25-54 demographic bracket that advertisers buy." Yet is it really fair to blame the slide of the morning block's show on just one man?
As a reminder, Sorkin was never the type of personality that CNBC needed: his background was one always best suited to a print medium, where he would be (ab)used by bigger financial interests (at a far slower paced news cycle) who would leak information to him when the time was right. No understanding of the big, or little, picture was required (and none was ever imputed): merely continued "access" (think Wall Street and Blue Horseshoe) which could be gained in exchange for promises of amicable 'profiles' in the occasional infinitely biased non-fiction book. As such, anyone who truly penned their hopes of a rating reincarnation on an access journalist likely needs to be fired. He was not the flamboyant, blonde, mini skirt-clad, eye candy that the bulk of traders who watch the morning block, most of them on mute, are looking for.
Yet the collapse in CNBC ratings goes to a deeper issue.
Because while the cyclical shifts in CNBC viewership are macro event driven, the unmistakable secular decline indicates that just like loss of faith in capital markets by retail investors (last week the ICI reported the biggest weekly outflow from US equity markets in 2012), manifesting itself in a crippling collapse in trading volumes, which in turn is forcing banks to fire traders and salespeople left and right, secondary derivatives of this phenomenon are impacting the financial media, just like CNBC.
But the biggest irony is that it is precisely the same central planning cheerleading that one hears on CNBC day in and day out (look no further than Bob Pisani and Steve Liesman) which is the silver bullet that has been fired right at the head of the Comcast/GE-owned financial station. Because as Artemis Capital showed previously, equity vol collapses whenever the Fed is busy intervening and manipulating the capital markets. This in turn kills the speculative mania that drives an interest toward stocks, and the only entities that can trade in this type of vol vacuum are the appropriately named vacuum tubes: as Zero Hedge first showed three weeks ago, the percentage of electronic trading in markets is now nearly 90%. But this, and everything else, is merely a symptom of one underlying cause: endless central planning intervention by central bankers who now have sole control over the stock market. Who in their right mind would want to participate? And yet this new normal "vol to zero" regime is precisely what CNBC is cheering day in and day out.
One wonders: does CNBC grasp that it is cheering for its own demise? We doubt they are that stupid: they must. So then the real question is: whereas Zero Hedge at least is openly against central planning and is demanding a return to normalcy, yet we realize that this will not happen until after a systemic crash so vast that the status quo is wiped out and a fresh start is mandated, is CNBC not the ultimate agent provocateur: on one hand egging on the failed status quo regime (we all know who their main sponsors and advertisers are), and on the other praying and hoping quietly each and every day for a market collapse which will at least return some of their viewers?
Because just like markets are worthless without participants, so CNBC without viewers is a whole lot of ads with nobody caring about opening a Lind Waldock account (sorry, too soon?). And a victory for the bulls is no victory if no bulls are watching.
Yet just like with dying capital markets whose symptom is being misdiagnosed by regulators day after day, so CNBC will likely blame the collapse of its Squawk Box ratings on the wrong guy, until finally Sorkin is fired. But sadly, for all the wrong reasons.