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August 14, 2017

Taking Care Of Business

CNBC bumps up its market share with a small-business focus.

Neil Turitz
  • Jay Leno with Jerry Seinfeld

    Jesse Grant/NBC
  • Marcus Lemonis

    Nicole Weingart/NBC

Remember when CNBC was a business network that had a really specific audience?

One focused solely on the stock market and investments and derivatives and other such things we wish we better understood?

Well, you might want to check back in, because things have changed.  Thanks to Jim Ackerman, executive vice-president of primetime alternative, there’s a lot more fun on the schedule, with broader-appeal primetime shows like Jay Leno’s Garage, Billion Dollar Buyer, Adventure Capitalists, The Profit and its new spinoff, The Partner.

All these programs are business oriented, but with an entertainment bent that separates them from the more conventional, straight-laced fare for which the network has traditionally been known.

“I came in to build a boutique brand,” says Ackerman, who joined CNBC in 2012 and immediately began a new programming initiative. “The idea was to build another platform. When I first got here, I quickly realized that the programming is geared toward a very specialized audience. It’s an investor’s network, with shows that, if I watch, I will get quickly confused.”

He readily admits — with plenty of self-effacing humor — that he doesn’t know anything about derivatives and not much more about the markets. Ackerman saw an opportunity to reach an audience that was interested in learning about business, but not in some of the wonkier aspects that appeal to finance wizards.

“Business and money are topics that are universal,” he says, “so the concept was to build programming that was more relatable to people. Something like 90 million people are involved with small business in America, either owning one or working at one.

"The idea was: let’s delve into that world, for people who are dreaming of opening a restaurant or starting a fashion line or creating a new kind of spirit. They put in all their time and effort and energy, so it’s got high stakes and high rewards — and a very natural level of drama.”

That thinking led to the current lineup, which features Marcus Lemonis, a new star in the reality TV firmament. A no-nonsense entrepreneur, he became a sensation on The Profit, in which he invests in small businesses and partners with their owners, proffering advice on all aspects of their operations.

Over the show’s several seasons, his empire has grown too big for him to manage on his own. Thus, this season’s newest entry, The Partner, on which Lemonis staged a five-week competition to find a business partner who could help run things.

Meanwhile, Jay Leno returns this summer with his third season of exploring all things automotive. As the legendary gearhead talks to people about the cars they love, he seems even more at home in the garage than he was behind a desk for 20-plus years on The Tonight Show. 

“That’s true,” he says, laughing. “This lets me do what I want. I wanted to  do something totally different that integrated my hobby. I can call up celebrities and tell them, ‘I don’t care about your divorce or your time in rehab — I just want to talk about your cars and nothing else.’ They jump at it. It’s great.” 

The success of this line of programming — 2016 was the third consecutive year in which CNBC’s viewership rose among young adults — has led to more such shows.

Adventure Capitalists follows entrepreneurs whose products involve the great outdoors. Billion Dollar Buyer introduces promising companies to a billionaire hospitality mogul interested in potentially taking them to the next level.

In development is Back in the Game, from executive producer Michael Strahan and hosted by former baseball star Alex Rodriguez, which focuses on athletes who have lost their fortunes and are trying to get back on their feet.

Also on the horizon: The Fame Economy, co-created by Emmy-winning actor Hank Azaria, who sets out to provide an inside look at what it’s like — emotionally, psychologically and economically — to navigate an industry that is ultimately all about the bottom line.

“I think it’s an under-observed part of our society,” Azaria says of the show, which is still in development but will probably end up as six hour-long episodes. “There is so much talk about fame and its dynamic in our culture. So many celebrities talk about it in such a whiny fashion, and people tend to not have a lot of sympathy with that. And rightly so.

"But going beyond that, and showing what the experience is really like, is of interest. That was the motivation for the series.”

Of the network’s overall strategy, Ackerman observes: “It’s very crowded out there. We’re offering a unique platform. People know that if they tune into us in primetime, they’re going to get stories about entrepreneurs — something that’s instructive, entertaining and, hopefully, inspiring.

"We all harbor those dreams of striking out on our own, and we’re giving people permission to go off and explore that.” 

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017

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