Bloomberg Television wants to be a player and shed its reputation as a semi-anonymous sinkhole.
Its hard-working, but largely unheralded, staffers yearn to be taken seriously within the walls of the powerful parent, privately held Bloomberg LP. Likewise, they bristle when the media decline to respect their operation by mentioning it in the same breath as CNBC, the pacesetter in the competitive TV business-news sphere.
If Bloomberg TV's employees have wanted the media to pay attention, they got their wish this week, for better or worse. Unfortunately, the hook was that the information/news company, founded nearly three decades ago by Michael Bloomberg, now the mayor of New York, is reducing the size of its broadcasting staff.
Sure, job cuts have regrettably become a fact of life throughout corporate America, but this development is a seismic shift for New York-based Bloomberg. Its employees have long bragged privately that their news division, unlike that of so many rivals, has never had to resort to laying off employees.
Now Bloomberg is, well ... laying off employees. Company spokeswoman Judith Czelusniak said the broadcast group will have a "restructuring" which will affect about 100 U.S. employees in radio and television, 70 of whom come from the newsroom.
Bloomberg is apparently intent on clearing the decks so it can recruit journalists with fresh ideas. Its core Wall Street audience is shrinking, undermined by firms' greed and terrible investment strategies. To pick up the slack, Bloomberg can increase its audience of individual investors by presenting programming that goes far beyond the company's typical trade-journalism fare.
To reach the big time, Bloomberg Television now must change its basic philosophy by making its offerings more entertaining. The operation attracted attention when it hired former NBC News head Andy Lack last year to be its multimedia chief. Bloomberg TV has been, in a word, lackluster.
Bloomberg has a reputation for presenting a relentless stream of bland, factual information. (Full disclosure: I left Bloomberg in 1999 after six years there to join MarketWatch.)
The approach works well on the company's flagship product, the Bloomberg Terminal, a lifeblood of Wall Streeters who like to get the information in a straightforward way. But on TV -- a visual, freewheeling medium -- the style seems hopelessly dull and behind the times.
How rigid is Bloomberg News? Under the direction of its founding editor, Matthew Winkler, it was known to forbid reporters from using in their stories such "banned" words as "upcoming" and "despite." Traditionally, in the turgid Bloomberg-speak, readers saw that companies completed the pedantic sounding "transactions," not the more colloquial "deals."
But if Bloomberg intends to woo viewers from CNBC, it has to give the public a reason to tune in. It needs to recruit established stars or find some from within its ranks.
Bloomberg primarily must ratchet up the excitement quotient on the formulaic channel. Not only does this new style have the potential of adding viewers, it will also make Bloomberg TV seem like a more journalist-friendly operation and make it easier for the network to attract talent.
This has been a period of upheaval in business-TV news. Earlier this week, Jonathan Wald, who ran CNBC's news coverage, stunned colleagues and friends when he abruptly parted ways with the network. John Meehan, the managing editor of Bloomberg Television who had previously been at CNBC, left the company last month.
At Bloomberg, the job cuts appear to be the handiwork of Lack. As someone with knowledge of the situation quipped, "It's Lack's 'heavy-work.'"
Bloomberg has shown its commitment to change the way it gives viewers the news. Last November, the company hired David Rhodes, formerly an executive at Fox News, to headthe Bloomberg Television network in the Americas. Further, Bloomberg is canceling its evening talk show "Night Talk."
Lack's mandate is to make Bloomberg TV relevant. Previously, the TV operation was, like every other product and service at the company, valued primarily as a tool for helping the remarkably motivated sales staff sell more Bloomberg terminals.
To compete effectively with CNBC and Fox Business, Lack's focus likely will be to upgrade Bloomberg's performance during the critical early-morning hours leading up to the opening bell.
As a way to give viewers a reason to tune into Bloomberg TV, Lack must feature stars on the network. Whether or not you like Maria Bartiromo, CNBC's "Money Honey" is without a doubt the most recognizable star in business-news television. More than anyone, she has become the face of CNBC. (More disclosure: I have appeared as a guest commentator on CNBC and the Fox Business Network. Fox, like MarketWatch, is owned by News Corp. .)
But it's unclear whether Lack will elect to concentrate on building or buying talent at Bloomberg. He could go the cheaper route of trying to find a diamond in the rough and praying that he or she can attract a sizable audience. (When I was a reporter at Bloomberg, the company sent out a "blast" email to its print-journalism employees, inviting them to try out for on-air positions on Bloomberg Television).
Or, Lack can attempt to recruit the best and the brightest at rival networks, a process that will be very expensive -- and possibly impractical -- during a recession. Bloomberg will have a challenge of showing growth in the terminal-leasing business at a time when the spending by the ever-shrinking Wall Street community is contracting dramatically.
It seemed that whenever a Bloomberg TV journalist such as Dylan Ratigan, Erin Burnett and Brian Sullivan established a reputation over the years, another network wooed away the resident star.
The upheaval at Bloomberg Television reflects the changes sweeping through the entire news operation. Norman Pearlstine, former editor-in-chief of Time Inc. and the top editor of The Wall Street Journal , joined Bloomberg last year as the head of content.
At around the same time, Winkler relaxed his hammerlock on the news staff. I once noted that Winkler often acted like an honors graduate of the George Steinbrenner School of Management.
Many Bloomberg employees, while relieved executive style is no longer omnipresent, now carp that there is a vacuum at the top. It seems to some that neither Winkler nor Pearlstine is completely in charge of the news flow, resulting in intramural jockeying for control of such crucial beats as mergers and acquisitions.
Television is innately a glamorous business. Even the meat-and-potatoes corner of business news, whose core audience tunes in to follow the vicissitudes of the stock market, has its share of household names.
Now, it's up to Lack to find some for Bloomberg Television and create some excitement.
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By Jon Friedman