How to fix financial television

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This is a guest post by Barry Ritholtz, editor of The Big Picture Blog and author of the newly released book, Bailout Nation.

Over the past five years, I have appeared on various Financial TV shows over a 100 times. But I am also a huge consumer of financial news, in print, on the web, radio, and of course, TV. Being on both sides of the camera gives me a fairly good perspective on what does and doesn’t work on TV. I also have some strong ideas as to what is good and bad TV in terms of providing a social utility, being part of the democratic process, etc.

Indeed, this is a longstanding interest of mine. Over the weekend, I referenced the current Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) issue that focused on the role of the media in the credit crisis, stock market and economic collapse (CJR on CNBC, WSJ & Business Press). This area has long interested me. But I was surprised this post generated 100 comments from readers.

One e-mailer challenged me on CJR’s CNBC piece: “It’s easy to complain, but what would you do to “fix” Financial Television?”

Challenge accepted. Here are my general suggestions as to how to “fix” what needs repair on not just CNBC, but all FinTV.

1. Stop yelling. Stop interrupting. Stop talking over each other:  This is not Jerry Springer, its serious business. People’s retirement and investments are at stake. Please treat it that way.

2. Bring us people we don’t have access to. What various FinTV channels do really well is when they bring us long, thoughtful interviews with the likes of Warren Buffett, WIlliam Ackman, David Einhorn, and others. People we wouldn’t ordinarily have access to.

3.   S – L – O – W    D – O – W – N

4.  Risk:  All traders must appreciate the potential downside of trades. So too, must FinTV. Explain stop losses. Understand risk/reward. Recognize there are periods when buy & hold is a jumbo loser.

5.  Lose the Octobox. Fire whoever came up with the Octobox. ‘Nuff said.

6. Separate the signal from the noise.  Understand that most of the day-to-day action is simply noise. Look at a long-term chart, you can barely see 1987 or 9/11. If those major events get lost in the long-term trend, what do the intraday jags, kinks and reversals mean? Very little. Recognize that not every data release, slice of news, or rumor is at all significant. Stop treating them as if they were.

7.  Fact check: An awful lot of things on air get stated with authority and confidence. Much of them are little more than junk or pop myths. Why is it that the more dubious a proposition is, the greater the confidence the speaker seems to muster? Consider fact checking as many of the statements that are made on air as possible, and making frequent corrections.

8.  Accountability is important: I am astounded at some of the money-losing hacks that are on various shows again and again. These are the “articulate incompetents” to use Bennett Goodspeed’s phrase. Why not keep track of the records of guests – and let the viewers know how their past few calls have been? Are they Perma-bulls or bears? Are their stock picks awful? Are they reliable money makers? If not, let us know. (Of course, the better question is, if not, why even have them on?)

9. Bring back Louis Rukeyser: Not the man, but rather, his style. Wall $treet Week – Rukeyser hosted it from 1970 to 2005 – was plain-spoken, thoughtful and accessible. Quiet, contemplative discussions, with intelligent market participants, revealing helpful information. The investing public would appreciate something of that sort – again.

10. Sound FX:  What is with all the bizarre sound effects every time a screen changes? It’s financial news, not a video game.  Kill ‘em.

11.  Embed your video (on your own website or YouTube) instead of using WMP.  At long last, thank you.

12. Investigative pieces:  David Faber seems to have a monopoly on deep, long, thoughtful analyses. Be they on Wal-Mart, the credit crisis, whatever, his long-format work is a highlight of CNBC. More of this, please.

13. Most stock picks are losers. That’s normal, but the audience does not realize this. A big part of the challenge is informing the viewer that finding the big winners is a low-probability, high-outcome event. As in baseball, a 350 hitter is a star. Explain this to your audience.

14. Stop the bull/bear debate:  This is a vast over-simplification of the market, and often does not serve the audience well. There are nuances and variables that get lost when you reduce everything to black and white.

15. Partisanship: Leave your personal politics at home. Viewers don’t care what most of you think.

16. Respect the audience: We are adults. Treat us that way.

Source: Barry Ritholtz, The Big Picture, June 9, 2009.

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6 comments to How to fix financial television

  • Jack Gallagher

    It’s hard to argue with Barry. Basically, he wants the CNBC’s early morning format (with Joe Kernin, Carl Quintania, and David Faber) to continue throughout the day. That certainly would be fine with me. I have to disagree on his point #11 however. The reporters of economic news (like Steve Liesman) bring their political bias with them in every story they report even when trying to “just report the facts.” That does us no good – unless we have a Santelli to call them on it, so that viewers can see the other side. The arguments, the banter, and the downright shouting are GOOD even if it makes for “bad” television in Barry’s eyes. That said, I have great respect for Mr. Ritholtz, and agree with him in most of his other points.

    Thanks for posting this.

  • Norman

    I totally agree with Barry. Kudlow is one of the worst. He has many interesting guests but always tlaks over them or allows them to talk over each other. I swich channels as soon as that starts so if they think it is good TV they are very mistaken.
    I too wish they would bring back a Louis Rukeyser approach to discussing financial topics.

  • roy hall

    Wonderful, wonderful advice. Please see that the folks at cnbc who think we care what they think about politics get this message, especially the arrogant know it all Kudlow.

  • Keith - Hermosa

    Anyone who thinks TV is a source of usable information of any sort is a fool and deserves to lose his money. If you want to fix financial TV, don’t watch it.

  • Paul C Sandison

    A commendation to Barry Ritholtz for this. It is always some work to think through the faults of any system, and more to suggest practical ways of overcoming them. I also agree with Norman and Roy’s comments.

    The arrogance and ignorance of the following CNBC High Priests are insufferable: Larry Kudlow, Dennis Kneale, Melissa Francis and Joe Kernen. They are supremely arrogant and their knowledge is base and superficial. They should all be fired and replaced with impartial interviewers with at least a Masters in business and finance and political economy. Carl Quintania needs re-training and re-educating.

    That this does not happen says a lot about CNBCs set of values. It evidently does not want a balanced and impartial analysis of events and phenomena but just wants to create noise to dupe the public further than any of the government and business actors on the stage are already doing.

    CNBC is not an impartial and informative news source and despite the daily element of fact coming from actual events, it is a highly partial and tendentious source of desinformation and confusion. There are many other sources with far more accurate information and analyses.

    If any of the above High Priests host a programme I switch channels, and if they come on during an interview started by someone else, I switch channels unless it is a really intelligent and well-informed guest and the guest is about to say something important.

    It is amazing that any guest goes on a CNBC interview to be harassed and mauled and interrupted and shouted at, unless perhaps they have a masochistic bent. There must be thousands of highly informed people out there who would refuse an invitation to such a vulgar programme.

  • rich

    I agree with each of Barry’s points (which is unusual), but we must start with a recognition that CNBC is financially successful entertainment. There is a reason few watch Bloomberg.

    I do strongly wish CNBC would stop calling every new statistic or announcement “breaking news!” (you will recall that TV also overused the programming term “special”), and I equally strongly wish they would stop talking over their guests, and allowing their guests to interrupt each other(it sounds like “Crossfire”, a program that had to be dropped).

    Thanks again Barry.

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