Interview Date: Tuesday September 14, 2004
Interview Location: New York, NY
Interviewer: Steve Nelson
Collection: Legacy Collection
NELSON: Bill, let’s just get started. Tell us a little bit about where you came from.
GRIFFETH: I grew up in southern California. I’m part of the baby boomer generation, the California generation that benefited from the boom in the aerospace industry. My father was an engineer and I grew up obsessed with television. I’m also part of the television generation. Sunday’s would come along, the Los Angeles Times would hit our doorstep and the first thing I would go for was the TV Times, the TV Guide and I would memorize it for the coming week. What was going to be on the episode of this show or that show and I knew everything that was coming for the week. I was obsessed with television. Did I read a whole lot? A little bit, but I watched an awful lot of television.
NELSON: What did you watch? What were some of your favorite shows in those days?
GRIFFETH: Sitcoms. My dad tells a funny story – he’s no longer with us, but he would tell a story about a marketing survey that called one evening at the dinner hour as they always seem to do and the man on the other line wanted to know if there were any children in the home and my he said, “Yes,” and they said, “Well, can you tell us what their favorite television program is?” And he simply said, “Meet the Press,” and he hung up on them. He had a sense of humor. I loved the sitcoms and I grew up watching the Dick Van Dykes and the Lucille Balls and all the greats along those lines. Interestingly enough, I didn’t like watching news; I thought it was boring. Watching people sit in front of a television camera and read the news to me was not the height of entertainment. Who knew?
NELSON: Who knew? But at that point did you have any thoughts about yourself being involved in television?
GRIFFETH: You bet!
NELSON: As a comedian?
GRIFFETH: I’ll tell you what. I’ve wanted to work in television for as long as I can remember. The goal was a bit nebulous. I would take whatever came along. I can remember in college getting an interview with one of the anchors at that time there in the Channel 4 newsroom in Los Angeles and I’ll never forget that experience when I walked into the newsroom for the very first time. I physically shook because I was so excited to be there and I wanted to work at an operation like that so badly that I’d have done anything. So, the interest has always been there, let me say that.
NELSON: Now you mentioned college. You went to Cal State Northridge.
GRIFFETH: Yes. I had planned to go to UCLA. I grew up my whole youth expecting to go to UCLA. My basketball coach in high school had played for John Wooden and his son was on the Walton gang – Greg Lee, who was the point guard for Bill Walton – so I was steeped in the tradition of UCLA basketball and I was going to go to UCLA until I went to apply and I found that they didn’t offer a journalism degree, and they still don’t. It’s called a communications degree. Well, I wanted a journalism degree and I went to my own backyard and I’m glad I did. Nothing against UCLA but I found that Cal State Northridge had a wonderful journalism department and I obviously made some very good friends there as well.
NELSON: It’s remarkable that Ron went there, Sue went there, I think Sue’s sister went there.
GRIFFETH: Sue’s sister, who’s a production manager here at CNBC, she also went there.
NELSON: Now what’s going on there? What was it about that program? It was obviously very good – look at the people that it produced.
GRIFFETH: The fact that we’re all still working together to me is the most remarkable thing. Sue and I knew each other in college. Ron was a few years behind us. He was in the radio, TV, film department; Sue and I were in journalism and we worked at the campus radio station and if you had told me 25 years ago when we were there that we would be still working together today anchoring together living in the same state 3,000 miles away – it is a remarkable coincidence! There was no effort on the part of Financial News Network to hire anybody as a group from Cal State Northridge. We all came at it individually; ended up in the same shop and here we are still together today. It’s unbelievable!
NELSON: Working three feet apart.
GRIFFETH: Exactly – still after all these years.
NELSON: Now, when you got out of school, where did you look to first break into the TV business? You mentioned the local NBC affiliate in LA.
GRIFFETH: My first stop was applying in various… the local magazine shows at that time were hot and there was a show in Los Angeles called Two on the Town. You had the home magazine show, some other iterations, but there was a show called Two on the Town that was hosted by Connie Chung and a local fellow in Los Angeles, who’s still out there by the way, named Steve Edwards. It was a great show and I tried to either be a local correspondent for them or a field producer or whatever openings they had – they had some openings – and I was interviewed by their executive producer, a man by the name of Joel Tater, and I didn’t get the job, but he never called me back. I never got a call back and for weeks – I was working still at the campus bookstore at Cal State Northridge even after I’d graduated, and everyday anytime there would be a phone call for me the whole bookstore would light up – “Did he get the job? Did he get the job?” I never got the job and I never got a call back. Fast forward many years later, Joel Tater came to work for CNBC and was directing a show I was doing for awhile and I finally, after we’d worked together for a few months and gotten to know each other I called him on it. I said, “Joel, do you remember years ago when you were the executive producer at Two on the Town I interviewed for a job there and you never called me back.” Well, he was mortified, obviously. We became pretty good friends, but…
NELSON: You got over it.
GRIFFETH: I got over it. I finally got a job working in publishing for a year for a small book company, a book publisher out there that did sports books and sports medicine and martial arts, and I thought all right, maybe this is where I’m supposed to go in my career, but I knew that I still didn’t have television out of my system because anytime somebody asked me, “What do you do for a living?” it would be, “Well, I used to work in television but now I’m in book publishing.” So after a year I quit, didn’t have any job prospects but I had to get out of that and clear my head and get back to television. August of 1981 a friend calls me one day and says, “I just read in the trade papers,” Variety, Hollywood Reporter, I don’t know which one it was, “that they’re starting something called Financial News Network on cable and it’ll be in Los Angeles and they’re looking for people to hire there, both in front of the camera and behind the camera.” Well, I didn’t know anything about business. My degree was in journalism, remember? So I went and applied anyway. At that time CNN had just started, the Disney Channel was on cable, ESPN had been around for a few years, HBO was there and that was about it. But cable was the next great thing in television.
NELSON: And did you feel that at the time? We know that in retrospect, but at the time did you say, “Wow! Cable! This is really hot!”
GRIFFETH: You bet. It was out there and cable channels were starting all the time, not just FNN. The number of channels that have come and gone from those early years, I would go to these cable conventions those first few years and collect the pins of cable channels that are nowhere, or anywhere around these days. So I went and applied at the studios there in Santa Monica and I applied for an on-air job and they didn’t think I looked old enough to be a credible business reporter, so I was made a producer. I got the job.
NELSON: In the door, anyway.
GRIFFETH: I had my foot in the door. I had my first television job, finally. About six months later, one of the anchors called in sick and they put me on the air and I never left. I never stopped being on the air.
NELSON: I guess you didn’t do too badly that first time around.
GRIFFETH: It worked out after a fashion.
NELSON: But how did you handle the financial information because you mentioned that you were a journalism major, didn’t have any background. I think it was a similar case with Ron when I spoke with him. What did you do to get up to speed on that stuff?
GRIFFETH: At FNN we brought together people who knew television and people who knew business and we taught each other what we knew. Remember, this is 1981. There was no outlet to speak of on television for business news. Lou Keyser had been doing it on ABC briefly in the ’60s and he did it for a long time on PBS. That was it. You had Ray Brady at CBS, you had Mike Jensen at NBC and a few others at the network level, but on a local basis the extent of business news on television was a quick mention of the Dow Jones industrial average if there was time and that was it. So you didn’t have a generation of reporters, broadcast reporters, who knew anything about business so we had to teach each other about business. I had to learn about business, I had to teach those people who came from business about television, and that was a pretty good creative environment to work in at that time. Very heady times.
NELSON: Of course you didn’t have the audience that later developed for this kind of information.
GRIFFETH: Thank heaven we didn’t!
NELSON: Right, you sort of got away with it in a way.
GRIFFETH: I didn’t say it was good television but we did business television starting November 30, 1981. It was a Monday morning and we went on the air with Financial News Network. We had four anchors that we had assigned to different tasks – one stock market, one futures market, one international news, and the other was our main anchor. We did seven hours live for I don’t know how many months before we expanded beyond that, but essentially we went on the air when the market opened and we went off the air an hour after the market closed every day. At that time the market only traded six hours, now it trades seven hours. It expanded a few years after we went on the air, and I think we fed a handful of UHF stations at that time in addition to some of the few cable systems that we fed. Now, let’s remember, when we went on the air in 1981, cable programmers paid the cable systems to carry our feed. It wasn’t the other way around. God bless Ted Turner when a few years later he said it’s going to be the other way around and we were able to go to the cable systems and say, “Okay, now you’re going to pay us.” It was a very expensive proposition to start a cable channel at that time because we were the ones paying to be put on those cable systems.
NELSON: So essentially your only revenue stream is advertising and in those days the advertising community would look at something like FNN and probably half of them would say, “What are you, kidding?” They even dissed CNN – the chicken noodle network, etc, a couple of nicknames.
GRIFFETH: That’s exactly why Turner turned the tables eventually. He had the chutzpah to do that and we’re all grateful to him for that, but you’re right – the advertisers looked askance at us wondering what this was all about. So the solution for Financial News Network was not lost on the founders of the network. They decided they would try to go public and sell shares. If we were covering the stock market we should be in the stock market. So July of 1982 we went public, we IPO’d at that time, and as fate would have it, the founder of the network was forced out by the venture capitalist who had been providing us with some bridge money before we were able to go public and he left the network that day when we went public.
NELSON: Now there were some other problems there with the upper management at FNN…
GRIFFETH: So I hear.
NELSON: …that came along shortly thereafter, and of course the ’80s was a very go-go time, but there were also a lot of bankruptcies, a lot of M&As, a lot of things going on in the financial world, as you know because you were covering it, but it was ironic that FNN itself became number one, embroiled in a bankruptcy, and number two, involved in securities fraud – or I guess the head CEO at the time.
GRIFFETH: The leadership was convicted of that. While it may seem ironic that that would be the case, I would remind anybody that our job was covering the stock market on a day-to-day basis. We didn’t have investigative reporters per se. I’ve always said I’m not an investigative reporter. That’s not my job. I’m an interpretive reporter. My job of necessity is as the news comes in… I’m sitting at the anchor desk as news is happening during the day and as the news comes in my job is to interpret it for the viewing audience, to put it in perspective, to make something of it, to make it understandable. So we didn’t have anybody looking at the books at FNN from the news staff. Trust me, we were busy trying to put this stuff on the air. The old line is “the beast must be fed every day” and we were busy shoveling it out there trying to help the best be fed. So sure, there was a little embarrassment about that, but it was what it was.
NELSON: But from your perspective was it just keep plowing ahead? We’ve got to do this seven hours a day, and let somebody else deal with that.
GRIFFETH: Looking back today, there are two times when I still marvel that we hung in there and stayed with it, me included. One time when we found ourselves – this is before the network went public – and we were strapped for cash and there were two different Fridays that were supposed to be paydays when mysteriously the checks hadn’t arrived yet from the bank. They were en route, “in the air” we were told, but in the meantime they had us line up in the newsroom – I am not making this up – the anchors, the producers, the camera operators, the graphics people, we would line up in the newsroom as somebody stood there with a stack of cash and we were given what we might need for the weekend.
NELSON: To get you through, right?
GRIFFETH: “How much do you think you’ll need for the weekend until the checks get here on Monday?”
NELSON: Right, just to make sure you were back on Monday.
GRIFFETH: That happened twice. I marvel that we even stayed with it. The second time was with all the legal problems and when the network went into bankruptcy. I had plenty of people say through the years, “Why did you stay with this? Why didn’t you go work for a broadcast outlet?” A couple times I wondered that myself, but I stayed with it and it worked out.
NELSON: Do you think if you had attempted to leave or jump ship that you would have had the credibility, say in the broadcast side of the business, to walk in there and say, “Well, hi, I’m an experienced anchor,” and would they take you seriously at the time because that was the problem, I think, that you and other cable networks were having is getting taken seriously.
GRIFFETH: I think so. It’s the problem that actors faced in the ’50s when television was coming in. You wanted to avoid television if you were a motion picture actor. There would be a stigma attached to you, right? When Lucille Ball started her own television program, I mean this was the queen of the B movies in the 1940s, and when she started her own television program people in Hollywood knew that her career was over, right? The same could be said for broadcast talent. Cable? Why would you want to do that? And it worked the other way. There was something of a glass ceiling or whatever you want to call it if we wanted to get a job at the broadcast networks. Now I never tried – I’ll be frank with you. I never put the feelers out. A couple of times there were rumors that I was being considered for a couple of broadcast jobs but nothing ever came of that, and I’ll be frank with you, I was still very happy doing what I was doing. It was, after all, exactly what I had hoped for. I sat in a studio and I was on television and I was also providing a service. Now this is going to sound very Pollyanna-ish, but this is the honest to God truth – I loved meeting with viewers through the years. I’d go to various investment conferences and I would meet with viewers and often the feedback was “Thank you. You have taught me to empower myself about my own money, to watch over my portfolio, to make my own investment decisions. I discovered I can do that for myself.” And I’ll tell you, that is very satisfying and knowing that those people were out there basing investment decisions on what we were reporting was pretty heady stuff, and to a great degree that’s what kept me there as well, not only at FNN but certainly at CNBC.
NELSON: Not only were you satisfying your own career interest and ambitions, but you were actually performing a “public service”.
GRIFFETH: A public service, absolutely. And I’ll tell you, the early days of FNN, what was also exciting about that since I was also a producer in the very early days was we were creating something and I felt a sense of ownership for that product. I had been there the day it started and this was kind of my baby and I wanted to stay with it and see it try and flourish as much as I could. We were trying to decide something as mundane as the color of the ticker. Should there be a ticker? How should we display these futures prices and how often? All of these things that we now take for granted.
NELSON: Because this is totally brand new.
GRIFFETH: You bet! I’ll tell you a story – this was late 1981, early 1982, the very first formal daytime news conference that Ronald Reagan held in his first term in office and we carried it live like all the other networks. Let me tell you, that was very exciting for us just to be carrying a news conference live from the White House. However, the moment we put that on the air the phones started to light up. Remember, there’s no email so we don’t get the kind of feedback we get today from viewers who can email us instantly and let us know if we’re doing something right or wrong. The phones lit up and people took umbrage with the fact that we kept that ticker running on the screen below the President of the United States. They felt that we were not showing the kind of honor that we could be showing for the President. It was disrespectful to the President. Now, 20 years later what do you think would happen if each time we went to a news conference by the President we took that ticker down? A totally different environment now. People have come to accept all of the busyness of the television screen that we fought with. We broke all the rules of television presentation to that time when we were at FNN simply because we had so much information that needed to be imparted simultaneously – stock quotes, news, whatever it was – and now it’s just very much a part… Every time I see a channel that carries a ticker, whether it’s for news or sports quotes or prices I’m proud. We were the first to do that and I’m very proud of that.
NELSON: And that’s just become a staple of a television presentation.
NELSON: Now we had been talking about this whole mess with what was going on at FNN, if we can characterize it that way…
GRIFFETH: It was a mess.
NELSON: And then you became the target of two attempted takeover bids. You had Dow Jones on the one hand, you had NBC…
GRIFFETH: Well, we had a few in the very early days. Westinghouse was said to be interested. Remember, they were part of CBS at the time. Paramount Studios, Barry Diller was said to be interested in us at the time. There were even rumors for a time that Ted Turner might want to buy us and make us part of his cable empire at that time. But it came down essentially to NBC and Dow Jones, and how odd was it that while we cover business news we were the object of what became a very big business story for a time and a very ironic business story. A bankrupt cable network that other entities were willing to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars to buy.
NELSON: And what were you kind of thinking in being in the middle of this when you weren’t on air and busy doing what you were doing. The irony of it, at a quiet moment, thinking what is going on here?
GRIFFETH: You bet. I won’t lie to you. There were moments when after work we’d head to the local watering hole and try and make sense of it all. Sometimes you couldn’t make sense of it, but I’ll tell you what. We tried simply to keep the product on the air, to keep it as professional as we could and to make sure that the asset that these other properties, these other companies, saw such a value in maintained that value. I mean we could have just walked away. When we went bankrupt the executives, the good guys, if you will, at FNN who were responsible for keeping that network on the air did all the right things and they made sure that we were taken care of and that we had all the resources that we still needed to be able to put that product on the air. I give them a lot of credit for that.
NELSON: Because that was the asset of the network – the audience.
GRIFFETH: They were buying the distribution that we had. We had a tremendous distribution thing, and you know what that’s all about? I’ll tell you what that’s about. I’ll let you in on a little secret. We were not geniuses when it came to programming but there was an appetite for business news that to that point had gone largely untapped. People discovered that people were going to be interested in news about the stock market, about retirement planning, about saving for college, all of those things that we do at CNBC and that we did at FNN, and it was simply that the demand was strong. It was there. Now, I will say that we have to take some credit for providing a product that people were willing to watch. If we just threw up some numbers – we had joked about that once in awhile, if we just threw up numbers and made it a text service would they still watch? Who knows? But the demand was there and I think that was what NBC realized, it’s what Dow Jones certainly realized when they were willing to spend as much money as they were in a bidding war for a bankrupt cable network.
NELSON: So essentially using a southern California metaphor, you caught a wave, in surfing terms. Let’s transition now because you talked about NBC ultimately, of course, became the winner in the FNN sweepstakes, CNBC. Tell us about that transition, how that went.
GRIFFETH: From a professional standpoint, NBC did everything right. They sent people out to get to know us, to make us feel at home. Now, let’s not forget. I don’t want to gloss over this too much because an awful lot of people did lose their jobs at FNN in Los Angeles. The vast majority of the people who came to work for CNBC from FNN were from our New York office. Only a handful of us from the Los Angeles bureau, which was the main studio at FNN, went to work for CNBC, maybe five or six of us. That was it.
NELSON: You, Sue, Ron…
GRIFFETH: Ron Insana. Sue had already come to CNBC.
NELSON: She had already gone there, yeah, yeah, right, right.
GRIFFETH: She had left us in ’88 in actually helped start CNBC. Joe Kernan was a writer for us at the time and then he ended up on the air as well with CNBC, but that was about it. So I pay tribute to the people at FNN in those final days who still kept us on the air even though they knew that come D day they were out of a job. NBC comes along, though, and they made sure that the operation was going to be properly taken care of. They’re a class television organization and we had always known that anyway. So it was a Tuesday in May of 1991 that FNN went off the air. From my timeframe, I signed off at 2:00 in the afternoon. John Bollinger, who was our technical analyst at the time also went back and worked briefly for CNBC, it was part of his deal – he and I ran to the airport, we hopped on a 4:00 flight, we arrived in New York that night, we met Ron Insana, we met the late Ed Hart, who was our great credit market reporter at that time, and one of our production managers, Keith Manasco. We all met at a local bar across the street from the hotel where we were staying that night.
NELSON: This is pretty late at night.
GRIFFETH: Very late at night, but we needed that and we sat there and decompressed for a couple of hours before we went back to the hotel. The next morning Ron and I were on the air at 8:00 AM. I’ll tell you – I was in total denial at that time because this meant uprooting my family. My wife and I grew up in southern California; we were never going to leave Los Angeles. Why would we want to leave LA? Perfect weather, a great market to work in out there…
NELSON: To go to New Jersey?
GRIFFETH: To move to New Jersey, which by the way I love now, as a sidelight. And my kids have grown up here and they don’t know any different. It was a very, very gut-wrenching time, but you know what? It was the right move professionally and it worked out personally as well.
NELSON: So how are things different? You go on the air there. How did it feel different, what was going on differently?
GRIFFETH: You know, I’ve always said that FNN was a business news service that happened to be on television. CNBC was a television network that just happened to cover business news. There’s a big difference. CNBC had the huge backing of a very deep pocketed parent, not only in NBC but in General Electric. Let’s not forget that this became a pet project not only of Bob Wright, whom we still consider the patron saint of CNBC, but also Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric. When you consider the size of GE and the size of the portfolio that Jack Welch had to oversee we got an inordinate amount of attention at CNBC from that man and we’ve always thanked him for that. He wanted to make sure that this was going to be a success. He saw the opportunity that existed at that time. So, we get to CNBC and this was like moving to a country club. We’ve been “movin’ on up” as they used to say on The Jeffersons years ago. It was heaven. And I even went to our VP about two months into my tenure at CNBC and I said, “You know, you’ve got to give me more to do here,” because I had been used to working my fingers to the bone for hours on end during the day and here a lot was done for me. I was “talent” and we had producers doing an awful lot for us. So, the environment was a lot better professionally at CNBC and the product, I’ll be frank with you – it was a better product as well just because we had the resources to do what we always dreamed we could do at FNN. You give us those resources at FNN we could have done the same thing, but here was an opportunity to finally finish what we had started at FNN ten years before.
NELSON: Now picking up at your point about this is a television network about business rather than a business network being on television. How did it effect you as talent and also as an on-air personality because that’s one of the things that in a way does characterize CNBC – some of the people who are on-air, they’re personalities, and yet in this world of objective facts and figures and dollars and cents?
GRIFFETH: I will say that being at CNBC made me better on television because when we got here there were an awful lot of very good people on the air and there still are today, obviously, but we had tremendous competition to be on the air. So you moved it up a notch. At FNN we could get away with being more folksy. Let’s face it, Sue and I by ourselves for five years were on eight hours a day straight, so there was no way we could hide our personalities. We got very comfortable being on the air all those hours during the day so that was wonderful training. You mentioned earlier, we had a very small audience – thank goodness we did, but as it grew we got better. By the time we got to CNBC and the sized distribution audience that we had at that time, that was time for Bill to take it up to the next step, to not just be a business anchor but now I could be a television anchor and I’ve got to tell you, I relished the opportunity, I really did, when I got here.
NELSON: And did it help that you didn’t have to just crank through seven hours a day on the air, that you could really focus on the time you were on and really do that well?
GRIFFETH: You bet! There was a time here at CNBC when I was doing three and four hours a day only because I’m that kind of masochistic guy – more work, more work! – but early on I did an hour a day and then I worked up to two hours and that’s when I said I went to the VP and I said, “Please give me more to do!” I had been so used to going home exhausted every day that I felt like I was stealing the money that they were paying me at the time. It was though a very satisfying period there. There was still the feel of a start-up as we were merging these two news operations and we were starting to get attention for it as well.
NELSON: You know, even with NBC/GE’s deep pockets, it was by no means a sure thing that this network was going to work. There were still questions out there as to whether there really was an audience for this, whether there was enough advertising, how much the operators would pay in terms of licensing fees.
GRIFFETH: And some of those questions came from our colleagues across the river in New York City at NBC News without naming names, but as I said Bob Wright was our patron saint but there were plenty of people within NBC who didn’t understand what this CNBC was all about. This was NBC’s first foray into cable and we were like this white elephant that a lot of people didn’t know what to do with. Jack Welch and Bob Wright preached boundary-less behavior, not just at NBC but at GE throughout the company. There needed to be synergies that would reduce costs that would add value, that would provide growth and they were hoping there would be these synergies between NBC and CNBC and early on there wasn’t because quite simply it goes back to what we talked about before, the stigma of cable versus broadcast, the stigma of television versus motion pictures in the 1950s, that was very evident when I got here at CNBC. The people at NBC News weren’t sure they wanted to be working with the folks at CNBC. That’s changed a lot now but back then it was a very different working environment.
NELSON: Now you talked about Bob Wright encouraging an open environment in the company, but nonetheless, people are territorial, people guard their prerogatives and you guys are really upstarts and you’re in New Jersey on top of that. So I guess there was nonetheless a little bit of friction there. We don’t have to get into names, but you weren’t exactly embraced.
GRIFFETH: And you know what? I understand that. People worked very hard to achieve the status of working at NBC News and the fear was that if we were going to get into cable that that would dilute the talent pool, it would promote going after the lowest common denominator, it would reduce costs to the point where… you know, broadcast television notorious for spending money. The solution for years to fixing a problem in broadcast television was to throw more money at it. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, that was the solution.
NELSON: And they had the money.
GRIFFETH: And they had the money, right? Cable came along and for awhile… I don’t know, I never saw it officially, but I always heard that CNBC throughout the GE family, not just NBC, throughout the GE family had the highest per capita income of any unit in General Electric. No secret why – we were pulling in the money, we were a cash machine and the overhead was very low relative to our broadcast brethren at NBC.
NELSON: Now when did it become a cash machine? When did it hit profitability and more importantly than that, when did it really get recognized that this is really an important media outlet as opposed to what the heck are these guys doing? Is there a moment that sort of solidified that in your mind?
GRIFFETH: I have been asked that many times and for the life of me there is no… I wish there were a single moment that I could identify when I could say we have arrived now. There isn’t from my perspective that I can remember, but it was a series of events – the quality of the people willing to come to work at CNBC, that was one thing. The number of newspapers willing to do stories about us, not the stories about the financial difficulties that used to exist, not the stories about the questions surrounding cable and the future, but stories truly about the interest that had been generated in the stock market by CNBC. I can’t tell you the number of times we would hear from brokers who would say they were calling us to find out about a story that a client of theirs had called about because they had seen it on CNBC. It was very much a grassroots growth that occurred for CNBC. I can’t pinpoint a single moment where we can look back and say that’s when we realized that we had become a social phenomenon but I can point to a series of incidents that showed that the growth was very organic in this relationship between the people who were watching us and the programmers at CNBC who were responding to what those viewers wanted. You know, Jack Welch’s great mantra was for years “the customer is first”. You give the customer what they want and you will be successful and I think we were a great example of that. The interactivity that existed between the viewers and the programmers at CNBC – we would take phone calls on the air and when email came in we would take email, now we’re online and we have websites that people can gain access to, but that kind of interactivity promotes an ownership of sorts to the viewers. They feel like they have a stake in what they’re watching and at CNBC that was been a main part of our programming technique for years is that interactivity and that relationship with our viewers.
NELSON: But talk about your viewers, the customer. In a sense you have two really different kinds of viewers. You have the public and their increased interest in the market and things financial, but you also have, and you alluded to this a little while ago, you have the professionals. How do you bridge that gap and deliver a program that satisfies both of those audiences simultaneously without dumbing it down too much and yet without making it too complicated for the public?
GRIFFETH: I always say we had two parts of our audience – those who had to watch us: the professionals, whether it’s the broker or even the CEO wanting to know what the competition’s up to or wanting to be up to speed on the news, those are the people who had to watch us. The people who wanted to watch us were the people managing their own money, people who had an interest in managing their own money, the people who appealed by the way to Charles Schwab when he was getting started, right? The discount broker who said, we don’t give you any advice we just let you do your own thing. Those are the people that we appeal to at the same time. How do we appeal to both of them simultaneously though? I’ll tell you how we do that. The Wall Street Journal is very good, if you read their stories in one line somewhere in a paragraph, at explaining some of the arcana of business news. If they’re talking about the bond market at some point they’ll explain in one line how a bond is priced and its relative value to the yield of that bond.
NELSON: Yeah, moving opposite direction, you see that thrown in there a lot.
GRIFFETH: We don’t have the luxury of print where you can go back and rediscover or re-read for yourself. We have to keep moving on. So we do it periodically. But you know what we discovered? If we talked mainly to the professional, the person who had to watch us, the person who wanted to watch us would start to pick up the jargon, start to understand what we were talking about and they liked knowing this. It made them feel intelligent about what they were hearing about, and I think that was a great appeal for us as well. There would be a mystique about business news. Is Wall Street only for the rich, is it only for people who really understand the mysteries of the economy? We demystified that, I think, to a great degree. We leveled that playing field, as they say, and as we brought those people into the tent I think they felt better about themselves knowing that they could do this themselves. So as long as we kept it on a professional level and spoke to that pro, the people around them, the amateurs if you will, they felt good that they could be part of that game as well.
NELSON: The environment you’re working in, and this has brought a lot more of the amateurs into the game, was this incredible bull market of the 1990s. So whether or not there was a moment when it seemed to be working, you were probably were just busy, again to use this metaphor, riding this wave of this incredible bull market which was just turning everybody into fans of the stock market.
GRIFFETH: I’m going to say something that will sound highly blasphemous, but it’s something I sincerely believe – at the height of that bull market, at the height of our ratings peek in the 1990s, we had people watching CNBC who had no business watching CNBC, and I’ll tell you why. I’ll use as an example somebody who called us one day under the pretense that they’re looking for advice in personal finance issues and they let it be known that they had cashed out their credit card, they had maxed out that credit card and taken it as cash, put it into a brokerage account and they leveraged themselves to the hilt investing in highly risky investments, whether it was penny stocks or options or the futures markets or whatever it was, and they were looking to get rich and they were looking for advice on how to use this money best in order to get rich. I saw you flinch as I was describing that.
NELSON: Of course!
GRIFFETH: I did too! Those people were under the impression that all they had to do was throw money into the market and they would get rich. Boy, was that wrong, and while there were stories about us being cheerleaders of the market that just still makes the hair on my neck stand up. We were there trying to convince those people that they had it wrong, that this is not how you make money in the markets, this is not investing by any means. You look up the word “investment” and that’s not it. But be that as it may, we were in the midst of a classic financial mania and there had been financial manias well before there was ever a CNBC, well before there was ever television or radio, there were manias – the South Sea bubble of the 1600s.
NELSON: I was going to say… going back centuries!
GRIFFETH: Financial panics here in the United States in the 1800s, they are a part of human nature when too many people are chasing too few goods with too little knowledge, too little information, and it had to burst at some point. It was inevitable. So we were there when all of that was going on as it was going up and we were there as it was going down. Will we see that kind of mania again in this generation? I don’t think so. It just runs in cycles, multi-decade cycles. Our viewer ship is what it is. We still have people who watch for the right reasons and we will still be there to meet their needs.
NELSON: I will say in your defense, I think a lot of that mania was fed not so much by you as by general consumer press where people would read this incredible rags to riches stories every day – so-and-so bought this stock, it went up so much, they cashed out, etc., etc., – so I think that…
GRIFFETH: But you know, it works both ways on that though. It takes two to tango, right? There was obviously an itch for an awful lot of people that needed to be scratched, which, again, it happens generationally. The period of time when there is a perception that you can get something for nothing, that you could make an awful lot of money just simply by buying a stock based on a tip from an uncle or a dentist or a cab driver or whatever it was. There are still plenty of people who read those articles you just talked about that didn’t invest, who had a better understanding of how the stock market worked and they stayed away. It was the people who didn’t understand that I felt badly for, but what were you going to do? Even when I would question the CEO of a start-up company that had just IPO’d that made him a multi-hundred millionaire, maybe even a billionaire, who had been paying his early employees with pizza and I asked the “p” word – “When will you be profitable? Shouldn’t you be profitable in order for the markets to assign you the value it has just assigned you? You’re a hundred million dollar company now and you haven’t ever turned a profit. Shouldn’t you?” Well! The people who would write in or email or call saying, “How dare you! This is sour grapes on your part, Bill. You’re just feeling bad because you’re not in that stock making all that money. That’s why you’re trying to pick on this CEO.” It goes with the territory.
NELSON: Speaking of CEOs, you have a tremendous track record as a network and yourself of getting CEOs to come on the air, talk about what they’re doing – not really the guys who have just gone from nothing to the moon and are about to go back to nothing in a couple of months, but you know, major figures. How do you do that? Why do they come on because sometimes your questions aren’t necessarily softballs?” I mean they’re asked nicely but not necessarily softballs.
GRIFFETH: Somebody once called me the cable version of Dick Emberg and I’ve always considered that a compliment. Mr. Emberg, a very nice man, nary a bad word out of his mouth and I’ve always tried to pattern myself in the same way. Sure you can ask the tough questions but you can do it in a very nice way. My style is not to be in your face and yell, but on the bigger picture, yes, the distribution, the audience, the quality of the audience that CNBC has is not lost on any business leader in this country or around the world.
NELSON: Or on their PR people, I presume.
GRIFFETH: The PR people know it very well, as well, and it’s no secret that most of the time that they will want to come on our network is when they have a positive story to tell. There are some exceptions. I can think of a Phil Condit when he was about to leave Boeing who was gracious enough to come on the air and talk about why he was having to leave that company. That’s an exception to the rule, but for the most part they will want to come on. My job is to try and get both sides of the story. Now, having said that, I acknowledge that there won’t always be two sides to a story. Sometimes a company is on fire. They’re doing very well and that story needs to be told just as much as a story where they’re not doing so well, and I always am happy when a CEO is willing to come on and talk about the problems that he or she is facing. My job is to try and get them to tell their story as concisely as possible and when there is a problem that needs to be addressed to give me a candid answer about that. What I don’t like, what I detest is when a CEO comes on and wants to read the party line, as we say. They don’t stray far from the talking points that their PR people gave them, and I know I’m in for trouble when my first question is not answered and the first words out of their mouth are, “Before I get to that, Bill, let me just say…” and on they go reading the party line.
NELSON: Maybe they should run for public office or something.
GRIFFETH: I learned a lesson many, many, many years ago when I interviewed Boon Pickens and he and I have talked about this since then, he taught me a great lesson. I was interviewing this corporate raider as we called him in the 1980s and I was still learning the ropes, I was still learning the jargon and a corporate raider was somebody that was kind of new on Wall Street at that time. They’d been around for centuries but this was the latest iteration and I was handed – while I’m on the air with Boon Pickens doing this interview over the satellite – a note by our managing editor at that time to ask him about green mail. Now, green mail was a technique used by corporate raiders. They would buy the company’s stock, they would make an offer for the company at a higher price – they’d buy it at 10, make an offer at 20, the stock goes up to 15 or 18, the company rejects it so the corporate raider sells their stock at a profit. It’s great work if you can get it and there had been a feeling that maybe Boon Pickens had been involved in this in some of the takeover attempts he had made. The problem was I didn’t know which stories those were. I simply asked, “Mr. Pickens, what about these charges that you’re a green mailer?” Well, Boon turned it back to me and said, “You give me a single instance where I have been a green mailer,” and I didn’t have one and it was the very last time I ever asked a question that I didn’t think I knew the answer to to begin with. It was a great lesson and it’s something to always remember when I’m interviewing a CEO or a politician or anybody of that stature. I’ve got to do the homework.
NELSON: Be prepared.
GRIFFETH: Absolutely. It’s a disservice to our viewers if I walk into an interview blindly, unprepared. Unprofessional on my part and a disservice to our viewers.
NELSON: Now obviously these CEOs kind of expect they’re going to make an appearance, tell their story and their stock’s going to get a bounce. It doesn’t always work that way.
NELSON: Can you remember an instance where maybe somebody got themselves tangled up and left the studio and maybe their stock went in the other direction?
GRIFFETH: I’m sure it’s happened. I can guarantee you it has happened, but offhand I can’t think of that. Now let me just say about stock movements in the wake of CEO interviews that even if a stock moves for a half hour or an hour or even a day based on something a CEO has said, the laws of supply and demand will not have been repealed in the longer run. It will not change the value of that company’s stock which should be and usually is based on the fundamentals of that company – what it’s earning and its growth prospects. That sounds arcane, but my point is that at various stages in the cycle of a stock market people become upset if a CEO comes on to promote their company and it means a pop in the stock and the shorts – people who are short that stock – become upset that that has happened. By the same token, if they come on and something bad has happened and the stock goes down, the shareholders become very upset. But I would remind them that in the long run if you hang on to that stock it’s the long term fundamentals of that company that will dictate the direction of that stock. Lesson over.
NELSON: Yeah, and that’s of course to a great degree what happened in the ’90s is that people forgot all about that stuff, thought the laws of supply and demand had been repealed and thought that you could go on and on, up and up forever. That obviously came to an end.
GRIFFETH: March 10, 2000 was when the market…
NELSON: You know the date well. Well, I was going to get to that. What was the sense here when that happened and did it effect the way – maybe not – but did it effect the way you approached your job because now you’re not delivering such wonderful news anymore?
GRIFFETH: Were people upset when we started having to tell the bad news? I mean we never stopped reporting the bad news, let me just say that. If there was bad news to report we reported. If there was good news to report, we reported that. People heard what they wanted to. When the market was going up they were usually only listening to the good news, ignoring the bad news. That’s human nature. And then as the market’s going down they’re focusing on the bad and ignoring whatever good news may be out there. Did we change our reporting style? No. Did anybody from the executive wing come out and say, “Okay, it’s time to stop reporting only good news and time to now start focusing on the bad news”? Of course not. I’ve always liked to say that we put a mirror up to our audience. That’s our job. That’s what the stock market does. That Dow Jones Industrial Average is a barometer of public sentiment at any given moment in time and as the public becomes more optimistic about the future, the Dow goes up. Pessimistic, the Dow goes down. And we report that. When the market was going higher, we were constantly trying to remind people, this is unusual activity, this is aberrant behavior, this is not normal historically, but it was all lost for the most part.
NELSON: A lot of people didn’t want to hear it.
GRIFFETH: Of course they didn’t. And you know what? I don’t blame them. When I’m watching my 401K go up as much as it did, I’m a genius too, you know? And I don’t want it to go down, and if it’s going down I’ve got to blame somebody for that. Well, you shoot the messenger in many cases and sure, we took our licks as the market was going down, but we were simply doing our job in telling the story of what was going on in the market at that time and I’ll tell you – at the height of that bull run I questioned my own understanding of the markets. Maybe I’d lost it. They thought that Warren Buffet had lost it at that time, too, because he never invested in a technology during that whole mania. He just didn’t understand the business models and he didn’t think that the valuations were compelling enough to invest in them. Now, I’m not comparing myself to a Warren Buffet but as a business reporter I had been through my share of cycles, bull and bear, and this was a doozy. I didn’t understand it after awhile. I started to understand it again when the market started going lower in 2000 and all that went after that. It was yet another example of the cycles that have come and gone throughout history in the stock market and in the economy and we just happened to be there reporting it at that time.
NELSON: Now you had talked earlier about your relationship with the NBC folks when you got started. Talk about that today, though. It’s a very different world nowadays.
GRIFFETH: Very different, very different. The synergies, I can’t begin to tell you how much that has improved. It helps to some degree that some of the people who used to work here are now at NBC News and some of the people who used to work at NBC News are here. It’s that cross-fertilization that I’m sure Bob Wright knew would happen someday and has happened, but if there is a business story to be reported most times NBC is calling us to tell that story, whether it’s about Martha Stewart – you know, some of the high profile stories that have happened in the last few years here – the Martha Stewart story, the Frank Quattrone story and so forth. But sure, we had for the most part become the business news wing of NBC News and it also goes for the local stations around the country. Some of the higher profile owned and operated stations around the United States will call us periodically when there’s a glaring business news story that needs some sort of a treatment and they’ll call and we’ll sit in front of a camera and tell that story, and I’ve got to tell you how exciting it was the first time I sat in a chair and talked to the folks at KNBC Channel 4 in Los Angeles. I finally met that dream that I was on the air there on Channel 4 in LA.
NELSON: Now we’re sort of getting to the end of our interview here, talk about CNBC’s legacy in the cable business, the television business, and for that matter, the world of business. What mark has it made from a big picture perspective?
GRIFFETH: History is always best when viewed from a distance and to try and write a legacy as it’s still happening is rather difficult. Having said that, though…
NELSON: And I know it’s not a fair question.
GRIFFETH: That’s my caveat, though, for whatever is to come after that…
NELSON: And that’s a fair one, too.
GRIFFETH: I can look back with a great deal of pride on what this network has achieved with the kind of programming that we provided, but when all is said and done what it came down to was we were simply there to meet a need that existed. We live and die, as any business does, based on the demand for the product or the service, and the demand has been there and will continue to be there for credible business news to help people make their own decisions about the companies they run, about the portfolios that they manage, about the customers that they serve, whatever it is. We have long been touted in this country as a capitalist system. That has been the hallmark of the U.S. economy, but I don’t think we really understood what it meant to be a free market, capitalist system until the last 20 years with what we’ve been through where people become empowered by information, either as a consumer or as a business person or whatever it is, and to be a part of the process – I’m not saying we started it, I’m not saying we were the first, in some cases we were in some areas – but to be a part of the process of the maturation of the U.S. economy to come into its own as a true free market, capitalist society that, I think, is part of the legacy that will exist not only for CNBC but for Financial News Network as well. We were there, I was there, when people truly understood what it meant to live in a capitalist society.
NELSON: Now I know that’s probably part of – if I don’t mind putting you really on the spot in terms of legacies – your legacy. Let’s put it this way, your sense of accomplishment of where you’ve come from and where you are now. I know there are obviously still many miles to go, but in terms of your feeling of what you’ve been able to accomplish in terms of serving that audience.
GRIFFETH: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. It sounds very idealistic, I sound like Pollyanna when I say it, but I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction when I meet somebody on the street – I never get tired of it – and they come up and they simply say, “Thank you.” It’s nice to hear when they say, “I enjoy watching you. I feel as if I know you” but what I get most satisfaction from is when somebody simply says thank you. I’ll give you one quick example that epitomizes it all. A woman I met in Florida at an investment conference who came up and said, “You got me through the toughest part of my life.” She was going through a divorce, she then became a mother left to her own devices to try to raise a child without a husband or breadwinner, she was on her own. The personal finance segments that we were doing at CNBC and at FNN through the years she learned that she could do this herself and every day a little more information, a little more knowledge, she started with baby steps. A long story short – her kid was starting college, she had a career of her own and they all lived happily ever after, and that’s the kind of story I love and that’s really what has kept me going in this business all these years.
NELSON: So, one more question. There was the little kid, Bill, I don’t know, Billy maybe you were called at the time, obsessed with TV, loved watching TV. What do you like to watch today when you get home, you kick back, and I’m sure you watch a lot of news and all that to keep up, but just for pure entertainment.
GRIFFETH: You know what I love is the fact that DVDs now allow me to watch those shows that I watched all those years ago. I will admit I’m in something of a time warp. I will watch some of the television that’s on the air today. My son and I are huge fans of CSI. What I love is the sophistication of the technology of the special effects that are on television today that we didn’t have back then. I love something that tells a good story in a compelling fashion, visually or otherwise, and I’ve never lost that love of television. I’ll tell you, I still once in a while I’ll sit back and say, “I did it!” And I pinch myself and it’s a very satisfying feeling.
NELSON: Well, I couldn’t ask another question after that, so let’s wrap it up and thanks very much. We really appreciate it.
GRIFFETH: You bet. Thanks.