Shows to Watch

Someday, the time we’re living in will probably be known by historians of the stock market as “the CNBC era.” The financial news network now routinely moves the market in the short-term, as it did most notably a few weeks ago when former perma-bull analyst Ralph Acampora’s “bear call” sent the Dow spiraling downward, and as it did again in the middle of last week when Quantum Fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller momentarily lifted all the major indices with his assertion that a major rally was in the offing. (Of course, the Dow fell almost 500 points in the two days after Druckenmiller’s prediction, but these are short-term moves we’re talking about.) CNBC often breaks news stories, and is the major conduit for wire-service news during the day. It’s true, of course, that by the time you hear news on CNBC it’s probably too late to make money off it. Then again, if you’re a small investor trying to day-trade, it’s always too late.

Now, many months ago I explained right here why I thought CNBC was, well, not good. (Click here to find out why.) And as far as I can tell, almost all the things I said about the network in that piece are still true. But I have discovered something new (new to me, that is) about CNBC. Having spent the last couple of months watching entirely too much of the network, I’ve realized that I’m doing so not because I need new ideas for this column every day, but simply because I like it. In fact, CNBC is often terrific television.

“Often,” of course, is a relative term. CNBC covers the market from very early in the morning until 7:30 at night, and most of what you’ll see on the network is repetitive and uninteresting. But the network’s few gems are real gems. In the afternoon, Ron Insana, who hosts a show called “Street Signs” that runs from 2pm until the market’s close, is serious and well-informed, and in recent weeks he has been terrific on the turbulence in international markets. “Squawk Box,” meanwhile, which airs before the market opens, has a lovely, shambling rhythm that belies its name. Its host, Mark Haines, who speaks in a patient, drawly voice suffused with irony, gives the show just the right air of “we’ve seen this before but it’s still kind of interesting.” His conversations with the show’s correspondents and guest co-hosts come across as funny and real, rather than as forced repartee. And reporter David Faber’s “Faber Report” is a welcome daily injection of actual business journalism (instead of market-watching).

The best thing about CNBC, though, is Joe Kernen, who does a recurring segment called “Stocks to Watch” all day long. Before the market opens, Kernen talks about stocks that are expected to move, talking about whatever relevant news there is, and then during the day he’ll talk about stocks that are moving and why. Some of what Kernen says is old news to anyone who reads the Journal or the wire, some of what he says is really insightful (he’s especially good on bio-tech), and almost all of what he says will be forgotten by the next trading day. But that’s not what matters, because Kernen’s greatness lies not in what he says, but in how he says it.

Kernen is a genius in the way that Johnny Carson was a genius. Wearing a deadpan expression except when he breaks into a genuinely amused smile, he is an ideal ironist, letting you know that he takes what he’s saying seriously but not too seriously. He’s mocking without being cruel, and self-aware without being self-conscious. When he told famed bear Bill Fleckenstein on the air last week that Fleckenstein had “good hair … Michael Landon hair,” the comment was so right, and so surprising, that I wanted to applaud. Similarly, a couple of days ago, talking about a stock that had tumbled 58% in a single day, Kernen said, “It’s building a base here, and consolidating,” which was a pointed (and accurate) jab at the nonsense preached by technical analysts. The comment was so off-the-cuff, and delivered so straight, that even a technical analyst would have had to laugh. But of course I can’t describe in print what makes Kernen so great, because what he’s great at is television.

If it seems that I’m overstating the case, I’m not. Kernen is the best thing to happen to television news/punditry since … well, since I don’t remember when. He’s cool in the sense that Marshall McLuhan had in mind when he talked about television as a “cool medium.” (This is the point at which Woody Allen brings McLuhan out to have him say to me: “You know nothing of my work.”)

McLuhan said a lot of things that were crazy or just plain wrong. But he was right about television, and the fact that it needs a cool, blurry, ironic approach to work. The “cool, deadpan mug” that McLuhan saw as essential to TV is Kernen’s, as it was Carson’s and the early Letterman’s (as it is, in a different way, Fox Mulder’s). And McLuhan’s description of JFK in the Nixon- Kennedy debates as “nonchalant” and “less anxious to sell himself” captures those qualities that make Kernen such a welcome presence. To be great on television, you have to try, but not look as if you’re trying. (You do have to try, though. Just winging it doesn’t work.) This is exactly what Kernen does so well, and thank God for it. Real cool is something to see.

All of the really interesting CNBC personalities–Haines, Insana, NYSE floor reporter Bob Pisani, and “The Edge” host Sue Herera, whose interplay with Kernen has real charm–have a similarly cool air, though none carry it off as well as Kernen does. And those CNBC correspondents who are, by contrast, almost impossible to watch (as opposed to merely dull, which is what most of them are) are those who are “hot” in the McLuhanesque sense. This is especially true of Maria Bartiromo, who’s curiously the best-known CNBC personality. Bartiromo always looks like she’s trying, and she seems to be without a hint of irony or distance from what she’s doing. She does a report from the NYSE floor every day just before the market opens, and watching her frenetic presentation is enough to make you simultaneously exhausted and panicked. Whether this is an accurate reflection of the mood of floor traders or not, it isn’t good television. Watch Bartiromo and then watch Kernen, in fact, and it’s easy why McLuhan thought the medium really was the message.