Interview Date: Monday August 23, 2004
Interviewer: KC Neel
Bridget Baker’s distinguished career in cable television began with her decision to change from working on the legislative side of the House of Representatives into an industry where women had achieved success beyond the level of middle management. In this interview, she describes how, during a time of declining revenues, NBC, the dominant American television broadcaster, planned to move into cable. She also discusses how, as a co-founder of CNBC, she played a crucial role in the successful acquisition of the substantial assets of Financial News Network (FNN), the only serious competitor to the new NBC network. She reflects on the issue of whether business news would be seen as a successful operation, and when the network was first established, a decision was made to introduce a cash incentive as a launch or marketing fee to convince the cable operators to carry CNBC for at least five years. In addition, she describes the rise of interest in personal finances in the 1990s, casting CNBC as a “financial network for the masses.” Baker talks about the effect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the financial world, the influence of new technology like Internet and cellular communication, and asserts that CNBC is basically in the business of content development and distribution. As well, she describes the growth of subscribers, the move into global business and significant acquisitions, and the role of younger people in the industry. She concludes with remarks about the evolution of cable, the position of women in a male-dominated industry, and the importance of the Cable Center in documenting and preserving the history of that industry.
KC NEEL: We are here today with Bridget Baker. She is the senior vice-president of cable distribution for NBC Universal. My name is KC Neel and we’re here on behalf of The Cable Center to talk about CNBC. Bridget, before we get into the CNBC aspect of all this, I’d kind of like to talk about you a little bit and how you got into the cable business. You have a very interesting history coming from the legislative side of the House, and I’m wondering what made you choose to come to the private sector and what made you choose cable?
BRIDGET BAKER: I think for me, by the time I had spent about four years on Capital Hill, almost five, I had a pretty good sense of what a few more years on Capital Hill would be like and was pretty clear I wanted to work in the private sector. I looked at industries where I thought women had achieved some success beyond sort of the middle management level. So I ruled out banking, insurance, retail, and some of the more traditional, I think, older established industries and was intrigued with what I thought telecommunications represented at the time, which really for me was not cable television. It was more satellite delivery of information because growing up in Alaska I knew all of our… literally telephone communications and everything were satellite delivered. So companies like Rockwell International, Comsat, MCI, AT&T, they were doing what I thought telecommunications was, and then a fluke happened where I got a chance to come directly into the cable industry with a company called the Fashion Channel and I just took the opportunity.
NEEL: How did you end up at CNBC? How did that transition go?
BAKER: That was also a transition because the Fashion Channel started and was this really exciting… it really was a very exciting concept for cable, which really was sort of a video catalog and the garment industry in New York City was ecstatic about this idea. People like Liz Claibourne and Pierre Cardin and all these designers of the ’80s, this idea that they could have a video venue as opposed to a print catalog or a round rack in a department store. So everyone was very excited about this, but it was still cable shopping and so we thought we just had this fantastic idea and about ten minutes into it we had lost 19 million dollars and TCI at the time bought the assets of the Fashion Channel and I pretty much decided I was going back to Capital Hill. Life works in funny ways and I got a phone call from two people that were at NBC corporate development and they said, “We’re starting a cable channel and your name has come up as someone who can sort of hit the ground and run. How would you like to come try this?” And of course I said, “You guys are insane. There’s no way that they’re going to launch a broadcast owned and operated cable channel. There is no open channel capacity west of the Mississippi River, so what do you think you’re possibly doing?” They said, “We’re Fed Exing you a plane ticket. Come talk to us now.” And that was in 1988.
NEEL: And here you are. What did NBC think they could bring to the table? Obviously they were a broadcast network; obviously the relationship between the cable operators and broadcasters was anything but friendly. How did they think that they could make this work and what did they think they could bring to the table that could entice cable operators to really ever even be interested in talking to them?
BAKER: I think NBC’s perspective was that they… it was really, looking back in hindsight, some of it was trial and error and some of it was a conviction that was smart on their part, which was they were the dominant broadcaster, they saw every year broadcast viewership declining and they said where are these viewers going? They’re going to cable television. Then we’re going to cable television. And they sort of stood back and said, “What do we do and what do we do well? Where is there an opportunity for us?” I think that they looked at the news and information specifically because that’s something that we dominated in with The Today Show, Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, our Washington reports with Tim Russert, it was definitely an area that we excelled and they thought news – and financial news is where we ended up slivering off – but they had a conviction that they could come to the party with a very high quality product and it would succeed and we were right.
NEEL: Yet wasn’t there a lot of pushback? What were the challenges in getting cable operators to talk to them? When you said, “Hi, I’m Bridget Baker. I’m from NBC…”
BAKER: Well, two things. One is in the early days we distanced a lot from NBC. I mean, it was right in our name – CNBC – but we called ourselves Consumer News and Business Channel. Now they knew we were funded by NBC, but nothing that we used in the presentation to the cable industry had the peacock on it, for instance. We didn’t ever talk about NBC as our owner and backer. We called ourselves Consumer News and Business Channel and we were coming out to start a cable channel. The pushback was extreme, in part also because we were going directly competitive, head to head with an existing service called Financial News Network and up until 1988, ’89 that had never ever happened in the cable industry. So we were sort of breaking the brotherhood code a little bit in bringing a directly competitive product to cable. They all said, “Why should I do this? I have a financial news service. It may not be the slickest, best financial news service, but I have it, it works fine for my customers and for me. I don’t have any interest in giving NBC any bandwidth on this cable lineup.” So it was not easy going, and looking back trying to remember all of the tough battles I’m sure I could tell a half a dozen stories of some brutal ones, but my mind leaps to when FNN started going into bankruptcy and when we bought those assets, that was kind of a definite marker for our future success is when they disappeared of their own problems and we acquired their assets.
NEEL: What compelled NBC to want FNN to begin with? If it was a bankrupt company, what was it that compelled them to want that asset as badly as you wanted it because obviously they fought very hard for it with Westinghouse and Dow Jones?
BAKER: Well, again, some of this, when you go back in time, General Electric had just purchased NBC from RCA very shortly before the cable division started and GE had a mantra then and it’s a mantra now that you’re a leader in your business. You’re number one or you’re number two or you’re out. So, definitely from the strategic business objective, it wasn’t an option for NBC not to pursue FNN because we could eliminate our only competitor if they really were a serious competitor and we would be the business leader and that’s what we wanted to do. So I think it was a marker in some many ways for us – internally with NBC going to GE someone had to sign the check that said, “Okay,” – and it was Jack Welch – “you can spent 160 million dollars on this bankrupt asset.” And I think it was such a marker internally for us with the broadcast affiliates because then Bob Wright, our chairman, had to take all sorts of questions about “Wait a minute! 160 million dollars of real capital is going to what? Cable? Excuse me, we have these pilots we’re going to do out in Hollywood. The broadcast affiliates want this and the Super Bowl is coming.” NBC at the time was in the NFL, the NBA, major league baseball – we were dominant, so it definitely was a huge mountain. We climbed and sort of went over as a company together when we bought that, but I don’t think it was an option to not get it. There’s a story that’s told – I wasn’t in the meeting – but I know that when they had to go up to Fairfield, Connecticut and meet with Jack Welch and the people there, the story is that Jack Welch sort of backed up at one point and said, “Wait a minute. Is business news real? Is it a business?” And people like Tom Rodgers and my boss, David Zaslav, and a few other people had to basically explain that we thought it was. We thought it was a real business. But he asked exactly the question you’re sort of asking – if it was bankrupt and CNBC wasn’t making any money, FNN was on the block, was this a real business? And we said, “Yes.” I don’t know if we knew for sure. We believed.
NEEL: Was that a pivotal moment for CNBC because obviously you went from 18 million subscribers to almost 40, is that right?
BAKER: It was about 30, 32, yeah. Yeah, it was. Some of our distribution overlapped and some didn’t, so we persevered in getting the distribution incrementally that we needed and also a lot of FNN’s distribution was part time because the truth is they were pretty much a data service that ended at about 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon and then they had infomercials and this service called Teleshop, which was a shopping service primetime and on the weekends. So we had a lot of work to do that went on for many years following the acquisition to get those systems to put what was now CNBC on full-time, but we gained an incremental 17 million homes and got rid of our competitor, so I think that was a definitely a marker for CNBC.
NEEL: Did cable operators react positively to that or were they angry?
BAKER: Well, I would say that some operators were very positive. We took the very best talent we could from FNN, and Sue Herera, Bill Griffeth, Ron Insana all came with us, and so that was a salve for the industry. They knew those guys and the first day we switched on there was Sue Herera and Ron Insana, those were the faces they knew, but there was a lot of growing we did because for instance when we launched day one we had one ticker. They really wanted two tickers. The ticker was the thing back then. It’s so hard to go back in time. This is before the internet and cell phones, but this ticker which was fifteen minutes delayed – still is – was huge and they wanted both, the New York Stock Exchange and the American Stock Exchange, and they needed both. The advantage we had in many ways is we were such a dominant broadcasting organization that anything they told us we could change instantly and they did. Cox was one of our earliest customers on launch day and they gave us this feedback. We instantly changed it. So the operators, I wouldn’t describe them as angry. I think they were a little suspect; I think they had had a couple years of us out there. They sort of knew what we were trying to do, but I think they saw that we were in it for the long haul. I think it came across that if we were going to invest this kind of money and take this asset and really try to play with it against competitors that wanted it like Dow Jones and Westinghouse and Ted Turner, who wanted it desperately, that we were really in the game.
NEEL: Now, did your relationship with Senator Stevens, having worked with him on Capital Hill, how did that help CNBC because Ted did want FNN at one point, did he not?
BAKER: Yes, he did, and his board… there’s a very little known story that I will share with you. His board, which was really headed by John Malone at the time, voted him down for the first time ever when he went up to the board to ask for the backing to buy FNN. By the time bankruptcy court came the people in there were NBC/GE, Westinghouse and Dow Jones, so Ted wasn’t in there for that part of it because his board had said, “No, don’t go after this asset.” One reason they said no is because of a dinner that was in Denver. Senator Stevens had been invited out to a dinner that was a fundraiser for his political action committee and I had been very shortly off his staff, maybe two years, and someone from his staff called and said, “Hey, we’re doing this fundraiser in the cable industry. You’re in the cable industry, aren’t you? Why don’t you come out to this thing?” So I remember calling Tom Rodgers at the time and Caroline Vanderlip at my company and saying, “Would we do something like this? It’s some amount of contribution, maybe $1,000,” and not missing a beat, of course, back at 30 Rockefeller, they quickly thought oh my gosh! Bridget’s going there, she worked for Stevens for 4 1/ 2 years and Turner’s board is getting ready to vote on this backing for him to come up and try to buy FNN, which we don’t want to have happen.
NEEL: Was he there chairman…?
BAKER: He had run for the leadership position against Bob Dole and lost, so he had lost a committee chairmanship at the time and I think it was energy, but it could have been commerce. Anyway, they called me on the phone, Bob Wright and Tom Rodgers, and they said, “You know, you’re going to be at this dinner and this could be very important to our company.” It was the experience of Bob and Tom on the phone and sort of saying here are the issues that we’re looking at and here is why we don’t feel it’s in the best interests for Turner to have all these information sources into the home and Stevens is going to talk to his board, and these are really some concerns. We don’t think Washington’s going to agree to this even if he tries to buy it. They’re brilliant men and they were great strategists, so I listened to this and I still have the notes from this phone call. I’m sitting in my apartment and on little yellow Post-its furiously trying to write everything they’re telling me. I had only been at NBC a little while and the next day I get on this plane and there’s Senator Stevens, and he’s known me since I was 17 or 18 years old. “Oh, Bridget! How are you?” And we got on the plane and he said, “Well, how are things going? How’s it going in the private sector? What’s it like at NBC?” I said, “Well, it’s really exciting but Turner’s going to try and buy FNN,” and I launch into this whole thing and the story goes that he landed, we all landed in Denver, and he went to the fundraiser, which we all attended and then he had a private dinner with the board. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall; no one knows for sure exactly what was said, but for the first time ever in Turner’s business practice, his board voted him down on something he wanted to do and they voted against giving him the backing to by FNN. So that’s the little told story about the success of Bridget lobbying her former boss for the benefit of NBC.
NEEL: Was that the only time that that ever happened or did they call upon your relationship again?
BAKER: That was it. That was it.
NEEL: Well, I guess it was the smart one to pull if you were going to pull it. How did the other networks relate to NBC getting into the cable business? Because at the time the cable business was very parochial. Ted was one of them and all of the sudden there were outsiders wanting to get into the business. How did they react to that?
BAKER: The cable operators?
NEEL: Well, the cable networks, too?
BAKER: Oh, the other cable networks.
NEEL: Um hmm, because here you were vying for real estate on the dial and you’re an outsider and you’re a broadcaster…
BAKER: I don’t remember as much from other cable networks, but Ted Turner was just fantastic. Topical of today with the Athens Olympics going on, it’s like what they’re saying about Michael Phelps – he’s making everyone better. The thing about having Turner as a competitor in those days was he just was so colorful. Every time he could get a quote with a microphone there he would launch in on NBC and how we were taking the food out of his kids’ mouths, and how could we think of going into the cable news business? This was his area; this was what he had done. Having him as a competitor made everybody better and more on their toes, and he fiercely wanted to compete with us. So I remember him specifically. I don’t remember that we had a lot of pushback from other basic entities like an A&E or a Discovery. I think everyone kept their eyes on us a little bit, but we really had narrowed at the time – I mean, today is certainly a different story – but at the time we were just going to do this financial news service in ’88, ’89, ’90.
NEEL: Because it seemed to me that the cable operators were so reticent, is that what created the $3 per sub incentive, the cash incentive? Because it seems to me that you guys were the first ones to offer cash as a launch incentive. I know it’s become kind of common place now and bigger numbers than what you offered, but at the time that was pretty revolutionary, and yet people still didn’t buy in on it either.
BAKER: Right, it was… what I recall about the time was that the deregulation or re-regulation at the time had occurred. What I remember is the going forward rules. That was what the big obsession was that they could launch these new services and there was this opportunity for us to get in there and once you were on, historically, it was very tough for an operator just to take you off, so we really wanted to get in there. So we created this $3 incentive, what we called the subscriber incentive plan, and systems could take this money sort of as a launch fee or a marketing fee and use it. In exchange, they committed to carry CNBC for at least five years, I think it was, and then they would also commit percentages of their base. If they were an MSO that controlled 2 million subscribers, and there were a dozen or so of those at the time, they would commit 98% of that 2 million subscribers and they would get this chunk of money. But the challenge was most operators didn’t want to do that. They didn’t have the capacity necessarily to commit to the benchmarks and there definitely was a feeling of why am I helping NBC? You have to remember that with cable a lot of the very successful networks had started because cable operators had invested in them – C-SPAN and Turner’s networks, Discovery Channel, BET – they had supported all these services so they were very invested, personally, financially, in every way, and they didn’t see us as someone that they should be helping necessarily. They resisted and resented, probably, that they had to keep Channel 4 on their basic lineup. They would have liked it if they didn’t carry any broadcasters and they just had cable networks, which we all got to live through with retransmission consent in 1993, but I do think we were pioneering in this concept of getting their attention at least with the $3 and being willing to invest in the carriage that way. Years later it became that $10 and Rupert Murdoch really changed the game with the whole FX… he came out there with the $10 and $12 and that really changed the game a lot, way more than the $3 acquisition plan did for us.
NEEL: As did retransmission consent. How did that help CNBC move forward? Did NBC use that as a leverage for CNBC?
BAKER: Actually retransmission consent was the leverage for MSNBC, not CNBC as much. It was that retransmission consent for us was the creation… in exchange for the value of NBC Channel 4, the operators committed to support a basic network that we called America’s Talking, and that launched in July of 1994. About a year into that – it’s again, remembering the time, Bill Gates was just becoming this phenomenon and Microsoft was this phenomenon and the internet was exploding or beginning to explode and there was definitely a contingency at GE and NBC, Tom Brokaw I remember being very much in front of this, and he was a friend of Bill Gates. He would talk to Jack Welch and Bob and everybody and say we’ve got to be in with these Microsoft people, they’re just doing a lot, and America’s Talking wasn’t going anywhere, really. I don’t know if I should say that, but it really wasn’t. In terms of viewership and distribution, we were struggling. So the idea was we went into this joint venture with Microsoft and we turned America’s Talking into MSNBC. But it was retransmission consent that gave us the foundation to do that.
NEEL: For that network, not necessarily CNBC.
BAKER: Right. In renegotiating all of our distribution contracts we certainly got the commitment to keep CNBC on and not deleted and continue to roll it out if they could, but it was really the birth of MSNBC that was the give-me, if you want to call it that, for the retransmission consent.
NEEL: Did the NBC brass have realistic expectations about CNBC and where it was going to be at its launch, at specific points, or did the fact that they were the leading broadcast network and they were the leaders in all of these things, I seem to recall that they just sort of assumed that of course everybody’s going to take us, why would they not?
BAKER: Yes, a certain what they used to call the “broadcast arrogance”.
BAKER: That definitely existed, and it’s hard now, again, to go back because of how successful the cable division has been inside NBC and you wonder which came first. If they hadn’t had this sort of arrogance and this believability that they could do this would we be where we are today? But if you just look at CNBC and maybe even just MSNBC before the acquisitions that have happened in the last two or three years, they definitely had high expectations – because their business that they understood was the broadcast business, and that’s a little bit of throw it on the antenna and everybody’s out there to see it, and that just isn’t the cable business – so this idea that in some respects you’re going to a wholesaler who’s then retailing your product, just the struggles internally for them understanding that… I mean certainly Bob Wright and David Zaslav and Tom, they got this, but it’s like I say, the certain markers that we had like when we bought FNN. It was sort of like, well… and it’s funny, you know – then we would get actually a huge deal done. Like, oh my gosh, we’re going to go on every Times Mirror system and the response at NBC would sort of be like, “Well, of course, because CNBC’s the best cable network out there.” It’s always about the programming when you work for a broadcaster, but I would say that the arrogance… I mean, getting the $3 deal, for instance, approved as just an incentive to go to the industry was huge for us that we would lay the money down like that. It’s interesting with cable – as much as they resented us I think also they’re a little bit watching it as “These guys are real. They haven’t walked out yet. They’re still on the playing field. They seem to keep investing; they seem to keep trying to tweak the product to make it better. They seem to do what they say they’re going to do.” And that helped us. That helped us in the long run.
NEEL: CNBC’s success seems to rely on several different constituencies, more so than some other networks. You’ve got the business community, you’ve got the Wall Street people, you’ve got cable operators, you’ve got the networks themselves, your parent company, things like that. How do you satisfy all those constituencies and how has that changed over the years?
BAKER: I would say something that helped us – and you hit on it, it reminded me – is there was a time, and I would say it was in the early ’90s, maybe mid ’90s, when suddenly every time I went to visit a cable operator CNBC was on, and that was very vivid for someone who had been doing this for as long as I had because that was never the case and really, in many respects, the senior management to CEO level that I would be calling on didn’t necessarily have the TV on anyway, but there definitely came a time when CNBC was what they were watching. When you say how has it changed, I think part of it for us was just the timing of the go-go ’90s. We had this thing up and going and then it all happened. Silicon Valley happened, all of the internet boom happened. You went from a time where no one talked about Wall Street or their stock or their retirement to I couldn’t get in a taxicab in New York City without the driver, if he knew he was taking me to 30 Rock he said, “Do you work for CNBC? I just did a buy/sell on a trade.” And you’d be thinking, “I’m in a taxicab in New York City!” I mean everyone talked about their personal finances and that was not the case when we started this network. So some of it, I think, was the timing of just hitting it and having everyone become sort of like this is for the layperson. Wall Street historically was this stuffy white male, Rockefeller, the captains of industry of America and that was it, and then it’s the cabdrivers in Manhattan talking about their personal stocks. So we definitely hit a wave that we got to benefit from and we were right there covering it and bringing all this to the masses. I would argue that we struggled a lot and maybe still with our primetime, which has always been a big challenge for us. How that’s changed is when we started out we tried to do this consumer news angle, which was everything from, oh my god, what was his name? David Horowitz! This consumer reporter from NBC standing in the grocery store saying, “Milk has gone up 54 cents,” and doing literally consumer news, what we thought it was, to having the political angle that I think we have more now, where we had Geraldo Rivera, Chris Matthews, we’ve done more the political primetime issues of television. But I would say that was the arc. The business world and financial became much, much more mainstream, so even though we started out covering Wall Street it became this kind of financial network for the masses, which went to the customers and helped the cable operators, and the business press and Wall Street and the internet boom just helped it tremendously.
NEEL: How do you think CNBC changed the way companies deal with the press? The financial world has always been somewhat parochial – you had the Wall Street Journal, you had the New York Times business section and if there happened to be something on the news it was maybe one or two stories. How has CNBC changed the way companies deal with their news, their issues, the things that they may or may not want to talk about?
BAKER: I don’t know that I’m the best person probably to answer this, but I would say that I’ve watched it over time so I know that it’s happened and I remember that our news anchors, even before the Maria Bartiromos, but when Sue and Bill Griffeth and Ron were all there, a lot of what gave their reporting and their ability to talk about business so much traction was they had real relationships with these people and people would call them and say… they really, really understood what they were doing and it was a passion of theirs. I think that’s why they’re all still there. This is really what gets them going. There could be people who love sports, they love movies, but these guys love the business of business and that came through always on the screen. So I think a couple things happened: one is I think CEOs were comfortable with them. They knew them. They had these relationships and I remember the first times cable operators were interviewed as captains of their industry. I remember when Rocco Commisso got on and Jim Robbins and these guys were interviewed by CNBC. When we started in cable, all those companies were privately held. They were not publicly traded corporations. None of them! Maybe Times Mirror, but now…
NEEL: And TCI.
BAKER: Yeah, and I guess TCI, but not Cox, we could go through a list of 15 of them that were all privately held. Adelphia certainly was. Anyway, and then they all went public in the ’90s. So they had this kind of one of their own and they all wanted to be on CNBC and be interviewed for their successes and if you take cable out of it among industries in general that was part of it. I think Sue and Ron – and I keep referring to them, there’s plenty more now that do this for us and they’re very, very good at it, but those were sort of the three originals that came from FNN that had been doing financial news for a while, and in some cases they relocated to New York when we bought FNN, and being right there and having NBC be a very blue chip, prestigious place anyway in Manhattan really helped them. They just had it and it was a very reputable… I think being owned by GE probably helped us. There’s also an interesting story, when the New York Stock Exchange turned 100 years old, they asked Jack Welch to come down and ring the bell, which is something we’ve always covered, the opening of the market, and I think from a distance some people thought, “Oh, well, of course they’re inviting Jack Welch. I mean GE owns NBC and NBC owns CNBC,” but that wasn’t the reason. The reason was because 100 years later, GE was the only company that still traded on the New York Stock Exchange that had traded on day one 100 years earlier, and so he was invited to ring the bell. That’s a testament to sort of the blue chip quality of what we brought to the table. Again, a lot of these cable networks had started the garage of we’re starting this, it’s a good idea, how are we going to do it? You know, like TV in the Senate was hugely a new concept, but there was a lot of polish and a lot of experience in programming quality at NBC and that came through right away to the cable side and people saw that. But yeah, that’s how he was invited to ring the bell.
NEEL: You mentioned that CNBC got to ride the wave of the consumer obsession with finance, but after 9/11 people’s thoughts and the things that were important to them shifted again and they’ve tended to shift back away from finance. I know that’s kind of affected some of your ratings a little bit. How do you adjust to that? How do you work around that? How do you get people to make sure that they watch you, that what you do continues to be relevant to them?
BAKER: Well, it’s hard. You could argue in some respects that news on every level is a commodity today. There’s just no proprietary avenue. With the internet and websites, and we have a number of competitors today with Bloomberg and I think Turner still has his CNNfn out there on some tiers, you could argue that that challenge can never be met almost because it is such a commodity. Then on the other hand, you can say that because we have been around now, we’ve lived through the decade of the ’90s, we reference all that stuff, we do ourselves have a very robust CNBC.com website that a lot of people access, but I think we’re always looking at ways to sort of expand. For the last couple of years, the president of CNBC, Pamela Thomas Graham, has hosted in Washington DC a three-day seminar where she invites certain people and our anchors come down and it’s gotten a lot of good feedback where people say, “We’re in this world, so let’s share this knowledge and let’s look at trends. Where are we going?” They get the captains of industry and people that own investment companies from all over the United States come and attend this conference. So I think we’re always looking for ways to sort of keep the brand alive, but it’s a challenge. There’s no question that the post-9/11 world is not turning on CNBC, although another NBC show got a big punch in the arm, which was Friends on Channel 4, on NBC regular. They wanted something familiar, they wanted something that felt like home, but our ratings did do a big slide after that. I think, again, sort of revamping the primetime and seeing how that goes… but I think the tried and true investment people still do go. They want to watch Squawk Box. They want to see the early morning show with Joe Kernan. They do have people they want to hear this news from. There’s no question about it. We talked about it recently about the Olympics. You can watch an unmonitored feed of the games or you can watch it with Katie and Matt and Tom and Brian, everybody talking about what’s happening and giving you context, and it’s just 10 times better to watch it with context. Bob Costas and can say, “Oh this was his fifth one and this is what he did before…” People want the guide and I think our network still provides that for a lot of viewers. We’re the guide. We’re getting you through the trenches on it.
NEEL: How has technology and the adoption of technology by the masses – internet, cell phones, things like that – how has that affected CNBC? Has it been a help, has it been a hindrance, is it something that everybody is still trying to get their hands on? I can recall CNBC being one of the first, wasn’t it one of the first to be able to do the cell phone thing?
BAKER: You mean get something like the beep on the stock or whatever through your cell phone?
BAKER: We did. I was going to say, it’s hard to know if it’s a help or a hindrance. Two things I would say – one is the expectation of the viewer for the data has risen exponentially from ten years ago. Again, it’s just back to that, if it’s a commodity, if they can get it anywhere do they want it from us? So that puts a big challenge on us. Secondarily I would say that we are a cable network first and a lot of our cable operating partners don’t want to see us do deals with telephone companies or wireless companies. So we sort of stand back a lot from just doing any deal that might surface out there. For instance, we don’t stream on the internet and we never will stream on the internet. Well, I should never say never, but it’s a video service, so we’re probably going to offer it as a video surface. Microsoft would love to stream MSNBC on the internet, but our cable operators buy this product and sell it to the viewer and it’s going to be offered as a cable channel. I think we do a balancing act a lot of the time.
NEEL: Do the cable operators want a broadband product that they can sell? Is that something that is starting to crop up a little bit? With the amount of money that they make and the margins that they get from their broadband service it’s becoming more profitable for them to push that product than it is over their video product. So could that change over time? Is that something that you see… could it be sort of like the evolution of adding another stream? You’ve got the affiliate broadcast thing, you’ve got the cable thing…
BAKER: What I would say from what I hear the most is that they are interested in again, I would say something almost proprietary for them is attractive. So if you’re a Comcast high-speed customer and you could go on Comcast.net and maybe from our show on Bravo, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, you could see some outtakes and you could only see that if you were a Comcast.net subscriber, they seem interested in that. It’s very much today, I would argue from what I hear, a lot about exclusive product against satellite.
NEEL: Just like the way it was in the early days before the exclusivity rules, which is something that NBC fought against the cable operators for to begin with. Is that something that NBC thinks it could possibly work into its… Do you see that as an advantage for you and for your networks?
BAKER: I think for us we try to be a little bit… we call it Switzerland. We used to call Turner Switzerland. We used to say he’s Switzerland. He can do no wrong. They love him, they’ll do anything for him. But now we always say he’s Time Warner, which is a little different and we always remind everybody, you’re giving all that money to Time Warner? Other operators, I mean, and we always just sort of gently remind them that’s a Time Warner company now. So we say that now. We try very hard to be Switzerland. In other words, to just withhold content from the satellite industry we cannot do, and to withhold certain things from cable and try to do it exclusively satellite that would just never work. We have to try to be Switzerland, and the world’s change. I think the big operating companies, they get this now. Again, they’re publicly traded; they have all these challenges. At the same time, they have stiff competition with satellite, but satellite is now owned by Murdoch and Charlie Ergan, and Dolan is in satellite now. So it’s all mixed up and we have to just try to be playing the game. We’re really in the business of content development and distribution and that’s the game we have to stay in.
NEEL: Regardless of the distribution network.
BAKER: Right, right.
NEEL: Have the challenges in selling CNBC changed over the years? I imagine that obviously the early challenges were just getting cable operators to feel comfortable with dealing with a broadcaster. What are the challenges today as you go out and you’re trying to secure distribution of that network in this environment?
BAKER: Today our challenges relate much more to the operators, and I just touched on this, with their competitive business that they’re in now. They are much more, I don’t want to use the word sophisticated necessarily, but just much, much more strategically focused on their bandwidth capacity. So they get into discussions with us about things like ratings and how we’re doing and do we deserve 6 megahertz of capacity if that’s what we have. With as many networks as we now come to the table with, I would say the challenge with CNBC is simply under the glare of the light when I big distributor, whether it’s cable or satellite, says, “Well, look at these ratings” or this is how much you cost me every month. I don’t think in experience those would be real… they wouldn’t drop CNBC over something like that, but to sort of lay those down as a starting point of discussion will impact us on anything else we’re trying to do like distribute now USA Network or Sci Fi or Bravo or Telemundo. They sort of can hold this card and say, “Well, how are you really doing and how are you so much better?” But CNBC is so established for us. MSNBC might be a little more vulnerable in that discussion definitely than CNBC would be.
NEEL: In the early days, NBC was the bad guy because it was a broadcaster. Now all the broadcasters are in the cable business, in fact, they are all the large conglomerate cable network providers. With the acquisition of Universal, you get locked into that group, which is not always used in a very complimentary fashion. So here you are, you’re back in the bad guy seat again potentially. How do you react to that, how do you sidestep that, and did you learn anything the first time that’s allowing you to perhaps avoid some of the landmines that some of the other cable networks conglomerates are finding themselves in a little bit?
BAKER: One thing that may help us is we still have the same people having the conversation – people like me and my boss, David Zaslav. Fifteen years later we’re still there. So it actually helps us, I think, in a lot of ways, and many times we’re talking to the same people. They might be in different positions but they’re still in the industry and they’re still the programming/acquisition executives and they’re the people we talk to. So we love to say, for instance, that yes, we’re a broadcaster but we’re not anything like the bad boys over at ESPN and Disney and ABC, or my God – who could even try to do business with Rupert Murdoch? The guy’s a wild man! So in the world we still, even with the Universal acquisition, are small. We really are. News Corp is huge, Viacom’s big, Time Warner’s huge, Disney’s huge. We’re very profitable, but if you just look at straight size and asset value, we’re not as big as the big guys so we’re trying to use that to our advantage today.
NEEL: So it’s paying to actually be the little guy, the little big guy.
BAKER: The little guy among the bigger guys. I have to say too, I think the industry has given us credit for something we said we would do that we’ve done, which is we always said that we would reinvest our money onto the screen, that we would put the best programming that we could put on the screen up there, and I remember when MSNBC launched a lot of the operators were in pure disbelieve, and of course all of our competitors… well, they were in disbelief about the fact that we would put NBC talent like Jane Pauley and Matt Lauer and Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams on this network, and our competitors just took that to the… “Oh, of course they’re going to do it for two months, but they’ll never do it long-term,” and we did and we still do. So there have been things in our history that we have built an enormous amount of integrity where we have done exactly what we’ve said we’re going to do, and that is another thing that today puts us in a very good position against our competition, if you want to look at these big, very integrated companies, we sit well in that group among those other institutions for a lot of things that we’ve said we would do that we’ve done.
NEEL: Are there things… there are rumblings in Capital Hill about how the small cable guys are trying to break up the programming contracts and split them up and there’s the whole retransmission consent, they want to get rid of all of that kind of stuff. There’s a lot on the horizon regulatorily that could affect companies like NBC. What are you guys doing in that arena and how do you view what the cable operators are trying to do there, and even if the big guys aren’t down there walking with the troops with little Matt Polka with the ACA, they’re cheering them on in the background, so how do you deal with that? What do you see on the horizon? There have been a lot of regulatory things – the ’92 Act, the ’96 Act, those kinds of things, how have they all affected NBC and CNBC and what do you see going forward in Washington that could affect the way you guys do business? Is it looking good? Is it looking kind of uncertain?
BAKER: I think it looks good. I think the horizon looks very good. I think another thing for us is our size is actually so new to us if you look at it from really the acquisition splurge, I always call it that we went on a shopping spree. Jeff Amelt became the chairman of GE and we’ve done these acquisitions. Telemundo was the first, then Bravo was the second and now Universal. So we’ve grown exponentially very quickly. If you think of ’92 and ’96 and some of those, we simply were just CNBC and by ’94 we were MSNBC and were sort of a stand alone operation. We made an investment in Shop NBC somewhere along the way before 2000, so the idea of the bundling and the a la carte and all those things – I think that’s what you’re referring to – there’s the decency and indecency rules and all that. In some respects we have an easier time perception-wise on Capital Hill because the NAB isn’t as powerful as it was a decade ago and NCTA is, and we’ve been a part of that since we started in 1988. I think we’re fine. I don’t know that all those things would impact us. If you look at a Murdoch for instance, or a Time Warner, they’re in the business of having a distribution outlet as well as the content development, and although we have GE behind us that is in a myriad number of businesses, at NBC we’re in content development. So we’re not trying to do the distribution end of the content, so I think in some ways we’re sort of free, freer than others are.
NEEL: Sure. CNBC began in ’89 with 6 million subscribers, today has over 200 million worldwide. What do you attribute to that growth? Was there a pivotal event that you can pin it to? That’s a phenomenal amount of growth in a short – relatively speaking, big picture kind of thing – amount of time.
BAKER: It’s hard for me sometimes when I think about it. It’s true, and I try to think is there one thing? I don’t think there’s one thing. I think there really isn’t one thing. It was probably launching when we launched, buying FNN when we bought FNN, the internet boom coming and going, and we did a joint venture with Dow Jones, which got us our international CNBC Asia and CNB Europe and that’s part of that subscriber count that you have in there. It’s a good network. I can remember little programming tweaks that I could tell you about like when we first decided we were going to do top of the hour general news updates, which was just a huge thing, in part because of Turner’s possible reaction or Time Warner’s possible reaction because it was seen as so directly competitive to CNN, or actually more Headline News. And then we did it and a lot of our viewers that might have gone away to see what was going on on Headline News stayed with us to watch. So there’s been programming tweaks along the way that we’ve done. I think if you had to try to just synthesize it to a couple things… doing live programming is an interesting venue because you can make the changes. It’s not a business where we acquired content way out in advance, a year in advance, and then it didn’t air until a year in the future and it was focused on marketing campaigns to get viewers. We were live, and I guess mainly a lot of things have happened. I mean, I remember when Brian Williams launched, he was the anchor when we launched MSNBC and it was the plane that blew up, the one right outside of JFK. I want to say the Scottish, but I don’t remember now if that’s what it was. It was July of 1994 and news services always in spike news events get really big ratings hits. But we had sort of an in in Europe because we had a network over there called Super Channel and then CNBC Europe came there and CNBC Asia, and they’re just very high quality. And we have CNBC World now. The digital service that we run… Direct TV and Echo Star have it, but we have it mostly digitally on cable systems and it’s what the operators I remember from 12 years ago begging us to do, which is 24-hour business, no primetime programming, and that’s what this service is, CNBC World. So it’s the Nikkei Stock Exchange, we do updates from Germany, we have these live reporters everywhere and it’s 24/7 all business news, and it’s a fantastic product. It’s not seen by as many people, maybe 20 million. It might be actually more than that now, maybe 24 million.
NEEL: If it’s something that they wanted, why aren’t they taking it?
BAKER: The operators right now?
BAKER: Well, it’s funny. It came out as a digital service and what a lot of the operators had done digitally is they had put Bloomberg and CNNfn up there. So they were sort of like well, why take a third financial service? I already have CNBC, then I have these other things. Why do I need this? That’s been part of it, and again, it’s just getting people to see it. Once they view it they just say… If you compare how CNBC World looked on day one as compared to CNBC on day one, it’s just dramatic for the better. But they’re taking it. They’re rolling it out. We’ll get there. It’s fine. It’s a great product.
NEEL: We kind of went into this a little bit, but how is CNBC really… It seems to me that the world of financial business has changed so dramatically – the way people view it, the way they absorb it, the way it’s disseminated, and it seems to me that CNBC is the reason for a lot of that, in looking backwards. Going forward, how is that going to change?
BAKER: In terms of how people process their information?
NEEL: You guys had an enormous impact on the way financial news is reported and absorbed and disseminated. Companies were never very open, and if they were, it was something that they fed the Wall Street Journal and that was it. But now, again, as you said, you’ve got people scrambling to try to get on to tell their story. What’s next for CNBC and are there other ways that CNBC, and not maybe perhaps intentionally, but are there ways that CBNC and the way it’s doing what it’s doing and what it does, will that continue to change the way people receive and how information is disseminate? Does it forever change?
BAKER: Well, I think it’s forever changed. I don’t know how much more we can change it going forward in terms of how we disseminate the information. Between the internet and the reporting that we do and the way they package… I can remember conversations when they said, “All these people in America have mutual funds through their 401Ks, so let’s start talking about that.” Those were really big leaps. To our guys that were in Ft. Lee, New Jersey at the time, it was sort of a day of doing business but they were huge in terms of having a video outlet that someone could actually hear, “Oh, this is what the mutual fund investor is saying,” and then the guy from Vanguard comes on and says, “Well, this is why we’re doing this because diversification is good and going to Japan makes a lot of sense.” Someone could be sitting in their living room in Dubuque, Iowa and just go, “Oh my gosh! That makes so much sense.” And then they would sort of get it, and then they would watch more CNBC. So I don’t know if disseminating the information will change that much more. I think that they expectation of a lot of the viewers for how quickly they get the data has changed a lot and I think that’s something we have to really stay on top of, is getting it out there fast and making sure that they’re getting what we think our viewers want to hear. But, yeah, it definitely has become a scramble among the Wall Street world where if you’ve done a CNBC live interview you’ve arrived.
NEEL: Who’d have thunk?
BAKER: Right, twelve years ago, first of all, they were all like anything that’s in New Jersey can’t have anything to do with finance because it would be on Wall Street. That was part of it – we were not in Manhattan. I remember the days when they couldn’t even get people to get in the black car to come out to Ft. Lee, New Jersey, and now they’re all…
NEEL: Why did you do Ft. Lee instead of be down on Wall Street?
BAKER: If I remember correctly it was union related. Actually we had a live anchor on Wall Street. We were the first to ever do that, you know, “from the floor of…”. That’s the Maria Bartiromo beat that she made so popular, but it was having the facilities and we were just in this building in Ft. Lee, New Jersey where we had the cameras set up and we’d have to bring people out there for interviews if they wanted to go on the air, and that was just considered, “Oh my God, Ft. Lee, New Jersey!” And I remember, and I could be wrong, but I think it was union related of why we set it up there as opposed to 30 Rock, but we always had a live person on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. I think it was New York first. Yeah, New York first because we did NASDAQ and American, but it was New York first.
NEEL: You guys had great cameras on the World Trade Center. I watched CNBC because they had the straight shot.
BAKER: We were right there, yeah, we were right there.
NEEL: Let’s go back to you a little bit. What’s it like to be… the cable industry has always been a very male-oriented, the programming side of the house is a little less so, but the cable industry is a very male-oriented, very clubby group, and here you are, you’re a woman in a company that is very male-oriented and male-driven, and yet you have done extremely well. What’s it like to be a woman in this industry and how has it changed from 1988 to today?
BAKER: Well, it’s changed a lot. When I think back, I think at the end of the ’80s, early ’90s, some of the cable pioneers truly were sort of exiting the business and I can see that much more clearly today than I could when I was in it. But if you figure that the first cable system was being built in 1958, by 1992 a lot of these guys had sort of run their course and they were starting to sell their companies, a lot of the smaller guys. There was some consolidation starting among the bigger companies. Companies were going public, which a lot of these guys didn’t want to do, and the technology was changing so dramatically that investing in rebuilds and doing some of the things that required going to Wall Street, trying to get money to get financing to rebuild your system, they just weren’t interested in doing it. I remember when Viacom sold their system. Viacom used to have a million subscribers. They owned Seattle, Dayton, Memphis, and they sold them.
NEEL: I think San Francisco.
BAKER: Yeah, they had San Francisco, and they sold it. So people were starting to make the decisions – I’m an operator/I’m a programmer sort of thing. So it’s changed a lot because I remember the early days definitely having a lot of the engineering types that were sort of like, “What’s a nice, pretty girl like you doing in a place like this,” some of that kind of conversation happening. You go into it with all the ideals of this is it, I’m in my big job, and I’m going to do this, I’m going to work for NBC – there was definitely a lot of that. And the way they used to do it, you’d fly out to Walnut Creek, California and you’d sit down with a guy and he wanted to go out for a steak and a scotch and you’d give him a t-shirt and he’d launch your channel. That’s the way it was happening when I got in. We changed it a lot, actually, because we came in with a very business approach and a much more legalistic approach. The thing that we understood, I think, early on is we couldn’t be vulnerable. We couldn’t wake up one morning and have someone just decide “Oh, I don’t want to carry that anymore, I’m just going to drop that thing,” because the asset value was and remains the locked in distribution. When all these networks started trading hands and people bought them up – Viacom bought BET and Fox bought Family Channel – when all that happened the asset value of these things has always been in the distribution. So that was something NBC understood very early on, so we came in with – I remember – these 16-17 page contracts and the guys who had carried FNN or something just kind of looked at us like, “What is this, Bridget? I’m not going to read that thing! I’ll put you on tomorrow. It’s no problem.” That’s really how it was, very sort of Wild West, but also just, “It’s fine, I’ll put you on.” It was changing just as I got in to being a lot more corporate and a lot more, I keep using the word legalistic, but I remember some early things. I remember USA Network being dropped by Jones.
NEEL: Very big deal.
BAKER: Huge! They lost every single one of those subscribers overnight and it was over a million subscribers. Those things went long and far in my organization. I mean, that was just never going to happen at NBC. The way it’s changed – and I’ve used these anecdotes inside my company – is so many ways. You used to meet with the guy who had built the system – this was all the same guy – laid the wire, drove the truck, did the billing, came in the office periodically, went out and tested the satellite. He was the same guy. Today I don’t hardly have a phone call where I don’t have three lawyers on the line. I’m talking to a lawyer and their outside lawyers. It’s just a very different… and it’s not anymore that same guy. The guy I’m talking to is a white collar lawyer. He’s never rolled a truck, he hasn’t been out and tested a satellite. In the early days we used to train the installers. We’d go to a cable system and we would have an early morning training to talk about what CNBC is to the installers. I mean, that just doesn’t happen anymore. We still train local ad sales executives and we do customer service trainings if the operators ask for it, but it was so much more of a collegial kind of family feeling place and now it’s just a much more corporate, Wall Street kind of place.
NEEL: What would you say is your most rewarding moment in your career?
BAKER: Oh man, that is such a hard one. You know, I’ve had some great times. I remember when CNBC flipped the switch, 3:00 in the morning. I had already been there a year before we launched the thing so it was finally going to launch and I remember it was 3:00 in the morning in California and we flipped the switch and there was Bob Wright welcoming everybody to CNBC. Those things are like they’re yesterday practically. But then I can also remember closing big deals, like the first round of retransmission consent when we got all these subscribers locked up and all the deals had to be done by October 3rd and for a month we were on the phone until 3:00 in the morning every night faxing documents and getting that done. And then the first time I went to the Olympics in Barcelona. I’ve had some great… I don’t think I can do one.
NEEL: No? If someone was coming into the industry today, particularly a woman, since that’s our perspective, but not even that, what kind of advice would you give? Say somebody like you in 1988 was coming in… you came in for a 90 day gig and you’re here 15 years later. So, what kind of advice would you give somebody if they’re coming into the industry today? What they need to do to be able to do what you’ve done 15 years later and thrive, survive, excel?
BAKER: It’s probably different at different companies, but I think there are some standard things, especially – well, not especially, but also for women, but also just young people. It changes when you get a little bit older and you get a few wrinkles in your face, for women you get married, you have a couple kids. The tone of everything comes down to a little bit more reasonable, sort of operative level, but I think one thing is I’m not sure it’s going to move as fast, and I’ve told this to some young people in my organization because the industry was in such a high-growth mode that just getting in at that time and staying with it, sort of in spite of yourself you can go along the train track with everybody else. Today it’s a much more… There certainly were places, I always thought of HBO as one of those places where compared to a start-up, basic cable network where you had to get in and cover a whole geographic territory and you had to run out there and do all this stuff, HBO was already way corporate by the late ’80s. They were completely established. If you got a job in an entry level position there, you had a very small little region because you were really more of a marketer of a product line because HBO is on every single cable system, it’s just a matter of who is buying it, and that wasn’t the basic cable business model. You had to just get on the cable system, so you’re doing ten times more traveling and running all around. It’s probably not going to move as fast as it did for someone like me who started when the industry was still in such a high-growth mode, but if I think of the things that have helped – in our organization a lot of the things that are valued are sort of the never take no for an answer, have you thought about every single thing that can happen, knowing your business and knowing the customer is a huge thing at NBC and also GE, I think, where you really have to get out and know it, and a lot of times you have to do it without a lot of guidance. What I find myself getting younger people comfortable with is you’ve got to go try and if you make a million mistakes that’s not a crime here. We don’t want you to make the same mistake a lot of times, but you have to go make some. What they tend to do a little bit more now, I notice with a lot of younger people is they’re so much more cautious. I’ll say, “Well, just call that guy up and blah, blah, blah.” And they’re, “Well, what should I say when I say that, and what should I do when I do this?” Sometimes you’ve just got to go and do it on the fly and see what happens because that’s how you learn. That’s what I would tell someone is you can’t be afraid to make a mistake, and some of it you just have to learn on the job. Me telling you in the office isn’t going to cut it because I don’t know what the client is going to say. You’ve got to go out there and try and have that conversation and see what happens. So I would say that. Obviously the easy things are the work ethic. If I even started… Someone once told me they took a photograph of every hotel they had ever stayed in and I thought if I had a photograph for every hotel I had ever stayed in, I would be terrified to look at that album.
NEEL: Did they have them in an album on the table or something?
BAKER: Yeah! And here was when I went to visit Cable One and Post Newsweek in Modesto, California. First of all, I would never even want to see some of the hotels I stayed in back then. I always say I stayed in every Ramada Inn and every… I guess that’s another thing I see, too. What happens with a lot of people now is they see cable as the entertainment business. That isn’t how I saw it when I came in, at all. Again, I was coming in thinking this is the private sector, let me just try this non-governmental start-up and see what happens. Now people look at it today as it’s the entertainment business. These are huge media conglomerates, international, and so they all think it’s about glitz and glam.
NEEL: Well, we’re in the middle of a movie studio.
BAKER: That’s exactly right! It’s just changed. They want to go to all the fun… like the Latin Billboard Awards that Telemundo has, or I’m sure the Emmys, it’s all about that, and that isn’t how this business started. This business was so C&D County, there’s the old guy that I told you drove the truck, laid the wire, he’s living in Casper, Wyoming, he’s never even been to LA or New York, he has no interest in going to LA or New York. That’s how it started. So maybe that’s a piece of advice for someone, too.
NEEL: What would you like your legacy to be?
BAKER: Oh, man! In the industry, or…?
BAKER: Okay, I’ve spent no time thinking about that one.
NEEL: How about CNBC’s legacy? What would you like to see CNBC’s legacy be?
BAKER: Well, I actually got a little glimpse of it because at our ten year anniversary – I’ve been based on the West Coast for a long time and that’s not where we’re headquartered, as you know, so I’ve always been a little bit of that falling between the cracks out here because I was sort of the only cable person out here. I mean, NBC Entertainment has always been here, but at our ten year anniversary, they hosted a big party in New York and Jack Welch came, and Bob, of course, but it was GE and NBC and they hosted it at this big restaurant. How I heard about it was I was going back there already for something and they said, “Oh, there’s an anniversary party, so the night before you can go to this party.” Whatever. So I walk in there and there’s a huge photograph of my face along with I think it was 27 other people. There were either 28 or us or 23 of us, and it had a big heading that said, “The Originals” and there we all were. Sue Herera was in there and Ron Insana and Dave Zaslav and Deborah Hall from finance – there we were. And I thought what is going on? No one had told me. They all knew, all the people in New York knew what was going on because they had heard through emails or whatever, I don’t remember, but I had no idea. So we get there and they call us each up on stage and they gave us this Tiffany plaque and I remember Jack saying, “I’m just so proud of you,” we were all standing there, you know, and he said, “You just plowed and got through it and it was never easy and you built this thing and this is what keeps America going,” and I remember thinking “Oh my God, this is so cool! Where’s my mom? Where’s my husband? How come I didn’t know about this?” But that would be it, I think, is just we started it and we succeeded, and it was a lot of hard work and a lot of luck and a lot of this and a lot of that, but being part of the team that was sort of there that had the vision, or thought we had the vision, and believed we could do it and we did it, that would be it.
NEEL: What was it like… watching television in Alaska is a whole different ballgame than watching television in almost any other place in the country and probably a little more like it is, not the volume or the amount, but a little bit probably more like it is today for a lot of people. Like I’m a satellite subscriber – I probably shouldn’t say that but it’s because I don’t have cable.
BAKER: Well, you’re pretty far out, too, isn’t that why?
NEEL: I am, I’m out in the middle of… I’m a no cable person so that’s my option. What was it like to watch – did you only have a couple of things to watch? So you’re favorite shows couldn’t have been… there wasn’t a lot to choose from.
BAKER: No, I remember this very well. The expression of bicycling tapes? They would bicycle tapes from Seattle. So I grew up in southeast Alaska, in Juneau, a very small town, and at 9:00 the TV would come on, I think it was KCAU, and then at 9:00 PM it would go off. What we used to call snow on the screen, it would just say, “And we’re signing off, KCAU Juneau Alaska” and it would go to snow at 9:00 at night. So we had very little television. I remember the Brady Bunch occasionally, and it was not network specific, obviously. They picked a few shows here and there, they bicycled the tapes up and we would view them. So I remember the Brady Bunch being on once in a while. There was this bizarre soap opera at the time called Dark Shadows.
NEEL: Oooh, I remember that! Barnaby!
BAKER: Barnaby Collins! And Angelique. I remember! Dark Shadows was a big deal for me. But I don’t remember us having… well, maybe they weren’t even around then but we didn’t have any of the children’s, like Sesame Street, we didn’t have any of that stuff, and it was all delayed, very delayed programming, but there wasn’t even a movie theater in my town, so TV and media was… It’s funny, you know, because then fast forward all these years and I got into cable and I was in Seattle at a company called Rock Associates, run by a guy named Gordon Rock, and he had bought a lot of the cable systems in Alaska like Valdez and Haines. He didn’t own Juneau, it was owned by Jack Kent Cooke, and he didn’t own Anchorage or Fairbanks, but all these outlying communities and he also had out of Denver – was it called Netlink? It was called Netlink. So he took the Denver broadcaster, which happened to be NBC and shot it up to Alaska, so what you had going on is in Alaska, a state with no professional sports at all, these absolutely rabid Denver Bronco fans and they would charter these Alaska Airline jets down to Denver to see these games. No one outside of Alaska would ever have understood this. The plane would stop in Seattle and all these Bronco fans would get off and of course everyone in the Seattle airport is like what is going on? But for those of us who lived there, we knew. It was the only TV they got. It was the only football game they ever saw, so they were just these crazy Bronco fans. So TV up there was not a big part of my life at all. People talk about, oh, didn’t you watch this? I never knew about any of those shows. In DC I never even owned a TV the whole time I lived on the Hill.
NEEL: So isn’t it ironic that you’re in the TV business and one of the people that has been one of the most pivotal in making it what it is today.
BAKER: It’s funny because I find this with so many executives in cable and television who don’t watch very much TV and we get in discussions with them and it’s kind of like, well, have you watched it or have you seen it lately. You have to really… that’s why we still show tapes. It seems like maybe an outdated practice, and a lot of times now we have a DVD in a computer, but we still show tapes because a lot of people don’t watch the content and a lot of people who are in the position of buying this programming aren’t that familiar with a lot of the shows.
NEEL: So do you find that people don’t have it on their TVs in the daytime as much as they used to when it was the go-go… I’ve got to watch the ticker?
BAKER: Well, CNBC is still on a lot, but now we’re in these other areas, so Bravo, for instance, they might have a very outdated view of Bravo, or Sci Fi, I’m finding out, a very outdated view of what that network is. So you have to really do a sort of job of describing what it is, and I understand it. The proliferation of cable channels has not been in equal measure to the proliferation of how much people watch. People still watch, I mean, all the research still says 12 or maybe 15 different networks, and so even if you talk to a satellite subscriber, they tend to weed out what they don’t watch and they’re still flipping between the favorites and that’s always under 30 channels and then people are watching 50% of those, so it’s hard to break through the clutter. Aside from the Olympic for us, which is a whole separate programming package in essence, is the Bravo show last year of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. That was such a wonderful experience because you can work your whole career and never witness one of these situations where this show that we didn’t really know just became this huge breakout hit. I remember when we were saying, “Wow! It’s not the number one show on Bravo, it’s the number one show on cable,” as in The Osbournes and South Park and all the stuff that Viacom always has, you know? That was a great experience for us?
NEEL: Do you think CNBC can ever have one of those? Is it a network that can create one of those?
BAKER: I don’t know. I would say yes, we have all the things in place to make that happen, but it’s still a world, I think, that we live in that cable operators buy niche programming and they want you to really stay with your niche. We got a little bit of that last summer with Bravo because they don’t want you going out of what they think Bravo is supposed to be and they don’t want you going out of what they think Sci Fi’s supposed to be, and they certainly don’t want CNBC to have Will and Grace on, so I don’t know that we’ll ever have kind of a mass marketed… What was fun about the Bravo experience is you wouldn’t think that was a mass market show that turned into one because it was really a makeover show and in this sort of bubble of reality programming success it just happened to pop right out there, but we say CNBC is reality all the time, every day.
NEEL: Has that helped you guys? The whole reality show thing, the whole idea of people not wanting to really watch scripted programs anymore?
BAKER: I don’t know that it’s helped CNBC, but I think of the whole Donald Trump, The Apprentice, our success with Queer Eye, which we put on NBC. That had never happened before either where we took a cable show and put it on NBC, in my experience. We hadn’t done that before. So that was a new kind of thing to experience, too, although we’ve run The Apprentice on CNBC in primetime and we got great ratings on that too, and that sort of fit. I would say the cable operators over the years, the biggest pushback they’ve probably had for us on the programming content primetime, if you want to call it a problem that we’ve had, is they’ve always wanted us to do shows more like – and we’ve talked about this for years – but like a Martha Stewart, let’s say. That you’re just sort of tracking how did she get there, and then she was CEO and how did she fall, and what’s the story. Or I remember when Michael Jordan was… let’s just do a show, Michael Jordan, what does he spend all his money on? Do these money type shows that fit into the niche but weren’t exactly tracking the market. But in large part, too, you’ve got to look at what NBC has already and we have this ability to do sort of crossover news issues on television, and that made a lot of sense for us.
NEEL: We touched a little bit on CNBC World and obviously you are all around the world and if you’re covering the markets 24/7 how has that affected the markets? Do people watch the Nikkei at 4:00 AM and then go and make trading decisions based on that? That really makes the world a very small place and in an environment where it has never really been too much, how has CNBC affected all of that?
BAKER: Well, I do know, to answer your specific question, people do get up and watch it because the minute we launched in New York on Time Warner’s digital service we got all of this great feedback. Now you could argue that the biggest population of financial viewers are in the biggest metropolitan centers and that’s true because that’s where all the people are, but that’s not to say that the guy living retired in Santa Barbara, Scottsdale, La Jolla or Libby, Montana is not just as interest in that information because it empowers people. If they can watch it for themselves and hear what that person says, they go to make a decision based on that. I think because of the history that we have with CNBC and the success we had, we shouldn’t underestimate also that the people who originally went over to build the cable systems in Europe, not the satellite systems, but the cable systems were mostly American cable operators. So they had a familiarity with our product and I remember specifically out of Denver United Global Communication, UIH… UGC was the parent and United International Holdings and they started building out London and Malta and they had franchises everywhere. Well, they already know about CNBC, they knew about our product, so there’s a familiarity and they take it with them and then we expose it to that audience, and then shortly thereafter we were launching CNBC Europe and there was a familiarity there. So it opened up literally on a sort of stair step program where we were covering the markets but mostly we were covering America, and then with CNBC World we got the opportunity to cover globally the markets. So the volume that trades in the States is, of course, enormous, but everyone over there is watching America too and it made a lot of Americans start watching internationally for themselves. I think it has made the world a very small place. When you have these brands and these logos and they sort of travel internationally… I will never forget the first time I was in an airport and somebody recognized the CNBC bag. I mean, this was a long time ago, but I’d been carrying the thing for five years but no one knew what CNBC was. You have to remember there was something called CBN, which was Christian Broadcast Network which today is Family Channel; there was the CBC, which was Canadian Broadcast Communications, but all the northern states the outlay the Canadian border could all get that over the antenna; there was of course CNN. So no one knew what CNBC was. Then I remember the time that some guy… it wasn’t in New York, it must have been Denver or Atlanta, said, “You work for CNBC? Oh my gosh, do you know about….” That’s when it started. That’s when the trend kind of started of it all came down to the masses and the impact meant that this stuff was tangible for everybody. It wasn’t any more in the rarified air of the guys who worked on Wall Street and their investment advisors.
NEEL: Does the guy in Dusseldorf, Germany or the gal in Finlandia, are they watching the American stock businesses? Is that what they want to hear or is that what they want to watch? Or do they want to know more about the Euros, and do the Americans want to know about those foreign markets as much? Is there an equal tradeoff there?
BAKER: The idea for CNBC World is for American to be able to see the international, so that’s definitely where we cover and they talk about. Deutsch Bank came out with this today, or the Tokyo offices of Toyota International did this today. They’re definitely talking about their issues countrywide. Having the Euro, also we lived through that. So that changed everything, too, in Europe whereas before there was a lot going on between the drachma and the… and now it’s the Euro. So we’ve watched that whole thing get covered. Those are the sorts of things that CNBC’s been teed up to witness firsthand and broadcast all over the world and we’ve just sort of been there. That’s a little bit the timing that I talked about earlier where we started and then living through the ’90s and having all of this come down the mutual fund 401K level where everyone is interested on some level to what’s happening, and the impact CNBC has had in expanding that market globally.
NEEL: Let’s talk a little bit about The Cable Center. Why and how is what we’re doing here in providing an oral history of CNBC and your views of the world as you’ve seen it in the 15 years you’ve been doing this, why is that important? Why should people pay attention?
BAKER: You know what? It’s so funny because I bet a year has not gone by that I’ve been in the cable business where I’ve said when am I going to write the book? I’ve got to stop and I’ve got to write the book about what’s happening here because no one is going to remember how it started because now it’s all been gobbled up. These are all these huge multinational corporations and no one’s going to remember that it was because Glenn Jones and J.C. Sparkman and Barry Marshall and John Malone and Bob Magness and Craig McCaw and Gerry Lenfest and all these old guys, Fred Nichols, all of them, what they were doing because people who don’t know the cable business just think it was all TV. They don’t track that it was this D County rural business that started because you were living out in the middle of nowhere and you couldn’t get any broadcast reception so the guy that ran the local hardware store said, “I don’t know, I’ll just put up a big old antenna and maybe we can sit in the hardware store,” because he was selling TVs too, along with vacuum cleaners and sewing machines he did have some televisions, so he invited his cousin over and his uncle and they sat and watched the football game. Then he said, “I bet I can figure this out. Let me get some coaxial cable and I’ll just run this down to your house so next Sunday you can just watch it in your own living room,” and that is literally how the business started. So you had these amazing entrepreneurs, these colorful guys who weren’t out of the big cities, it wasn’t a metro business, it was not a slick media operation. It was sort of an engineering hardware, D County business. They used to call it CATV, and it stood for Community Antenna Television. That just tells you right there. Community Antenna. So the guy at the hardware store would put up the big antenna, invite all his family over and they’d watch it in the hardware store. That is how it started. The fact that these guys became billionaires in the span of 20 years – I don’t know when else that’s happened in American business. Maybe in oil and gas, but there hasn’t been another time, and now because of the consolidation and the way it’s sort of gotten gobbled up, if you don’t have a Cable Center, you don’t have a place to deposit all of this… it’s almost folklore of how it happened and no one would believe it! The stories, it’s like truth is stranger than fiction. Some of this stuff is outrageous. How they started and what they did. They used to pay off the franchise guys in the city and they’d fight with everybody about getting it, then they’d dig up all the streets and everybody was like what is happening? I remember a time when they said why would New York be the last build, or Sacramento I remember was one of the last what we used to call new builds, meaning the city was just finishing getting built. It would be like how can it not be in Los Angeles or Sacramento? Because in those towns people live there and buses go by and you had to rip up paved streets to lay the coaxial, whereas out in Casper it was just like “Oh, there’s a telephone pole. Let’s just run this thing right across the pole and drop it down over there at Aunt Nellie’s and she can watch the football game.” Sports was always driving. Isn’t it always the truth that sports is always driving it. You’ve got to get those stories down because so many of those guys have exited the business now. When I got in a lot of them were still around and they’d go to the state cable shows. I remember Washington had one and Idaho had one and Texas had one… You’d go once a year and they would give these keynote addresses and they’d tell… Ted Turner’s stories… these guys had stories you cannot believe. Glenn Jones – “So I drove my Volkswagen van in a blizzard and 20 below zero, but I had to get out there to the headend and I had to check the satellite and then it came through and boom! I got the picture and my 22 subscribers were happy.” No one would believe it. No one would believe it. That’s why you have to have The Cable Center and get these oral histories. I would say there’s one other point, too, about The Cable Center repository for history, archival information, and that is that in networks like mine that started 15 years we had shows… it was all a trial and error experimental time, so we have these programs that The Cable Center is archiving and taking copies of and preserving that are today a little embarrassing for those of us to watch, but it shows the evolution of how we went from being this really small little operation in Ft. Lee, New Jersey not quite sure what Consumer and Business Channel was, but we thought it might be a little bit of this show, Steals and Deals, and a little bit of David Horowitz in the grocery store, and a little bit of Ken and Daria Dolan, Smart Money, telling everyone how to save and save for college and invest in their 401Ks, and we weren’t sure but we thought that was the case, and that’s all gone in time unless there’s someone there in the form of a museum like The Cable Center or someplace where they’re preserving that and you can see the evolution of where CNBC started and where it ended up today.
NEEL: Well, thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it. Thank you.
BAKER: You’re welcome. Thank you.