As digital arm churns out profits, CNBC explores reality TV

Nearly two decades after its first broadcast from Hong Kong, CNBC Asia has grown into the region’s No1 satellite and cable business network

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 June, 2014, 10:22am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 June, 2014, 1:38am

Nearly two decades since making its first broadcast from Hong Kong, the Asia-Pacific operation of CNBC has developed into the leading satellite and cable business news network across the region. 

“We’ve made tremendous progress. We’re now No1 in terms of ratings – whether you measure it by day, week, month or quarter – by a healthy distance,” Mark Hoffman, the chief executive and president of parent CNBC in the United States, told the South China Morning Post

CNBC’s Asia-Pacific operation was set up in the city in June 1995 as part of the American cable and satellite business news television channel’s 24-hour financial market coverage around the world. The following year, it became the first US-owned, Asia-based television  news organisation to open a bureau in Shanghai. 

Digital has become a big part of our … strategy, and we are not slowing down at all

The network, which moved its regional headquarters to Singapore in 1998, has managed to make some headway into the mainland’s highly restrictive media market. The country’s vast media market continues to be technically off-limits to foreign investors.

In 2003, CNBC formed a strategic partnership with the Shanghai Media Group, one of the mainland’s biggest entertainment and media conglomerates, which provides business news from the country’s financial centre to the network.

Another important collaboration was made in 2010 with state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). Hoffman  said the CCTV deal has allowed CNBC to gain access to “roughly 400 million homes inside the mainland”. 

CNBC opened a new bureau in Beijing in 2012. Other programmes originate from Sydney,  and bureaus are maintained in Tokyo and Seoul. CNBC also has a joint venture, TV18 Broadcast, in India with Network18 Media and Investments. 

Owned by NBCUniversal under its eponymous news group, CNBC was founded in April 1989 and now counts more than 390 million household subscribers globally.

NBCUniversal operates 30 news, entertainment and sports cable networks.  It is a subsidiary of Comcast,  the world’s largest media and communications firm by revenue.

For the first quarter, Comcast’s  total revenue increased 13.7 per cent to US$17.4 billion from US$15.3 billion a year earlier. 

Hoffman said CNBC has posted “three record years in a row of profitability internationally. We’re also making big investments both in Asia and in Europe”, he added.

In April, CNBC unveiled a redesigned studio in Hong Kong, which is now home to the network’s flagship morning programme, Squawk Box.

Hoffman, a broadcast veteran with more than 25 years of experience, is credited with further driving the network’s global expansion, establishing a profitable digital business, building an award-winning “long form” documentary unit and leading the overall organisation to five consecutive years of record operating profit.

He recently discussed with the Post CNBC’s advances in the digital market segment, its foray into business-themed reality television  series production and prospects on the mainland.

How much has your digital business progressed since the launch of in 2006?

It has grown so dramatically and quickly that we’re now profitable in digital everywhere in the world.

Digital has become a big part of our investment strategy, and we are not slowing down at all. We want to make sure that our products and services, no matter where our customers and viewers engage with CNBC, are of the highest quality.

If you turn back the clock about seven or nine years, I’d say we were a moribund basic cable channel in the US. Now we are a multimedia brand with no hidden agenda. We are bringing appropriate analysis in between the fast, accurate, actionable and unbiased stories.

Our four main verticals are: “Business Day”, which provides investor and business content; “Prime Time”, which has its own line of shows; international and digital.

Why did CNBC start developing a roster of business-themed reality TV shows?

Our daytime programming with the [stock market] ticker was always the prime time for investor-focused content. That has been the primary driver of revenue and audience engagement for CNBC. Our long-form documentary programming made a nice connection to what we’ve been covering during the day.

But in the domestic US market, we are a fully distributed basic cable channel. With Shark Tank and a number of new [reality]  programmes we have produced, these have opened up a new category of content for us. We literally get millions of impressions every Tuesday when we have [popular shows] Shark Tank and The Profit, which are based on serial entrepreneurs investing in small businesses.

The Profit is built around a guy named Marcus Lemonis, who is the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company called Camping World. Marcus has invested millions of dollars – of his own money, not ours – in many businesses around the United States.

What we do is take the audience inside these businesses, into real meetings and see how Marcus makes decisions inside those companies. On Twitter, we receive  thousands of questions either about the show that just aired or if we can take a look at their businesses.

We’re engaging small business, and many advertisers are focused on that [market segment]. It’s a category of advertising that is compelling and robust, which makes us very pleased with the progress we’re making towards content that leans more towards entertainment than news.

We’re trying to make programmes that are interesting, so we are going to continue to do this, one night at a time. It’s a whole new thing for CNBC, and we’re having a lot of fun with it.

Do you plan to develop similar reality TV programmes in Asia?

If we continue with the success we’re seeing in the US and we get smarter about the content for small businesses, I think we likely will. We don’t have plans in the works, but you might see some of these successful programmes airing only in the US  play here. We’re just about a year into developing this category of content, and it takes a lot of work to develop and produce a show.

We’re looking at different things across the region. Our local-language partners, such as CCTV in China and Network18 in India, have deep roots in their markets, which have paid off for us over the years.

Are you investigating new development initiatives inside the liberal confines of the Shanghai free-trade zone?

No, but we’re constantly looking at new opportunities in the China market. We always shoot for this thin piece of the media market that has the highest affluence and influence, and we’re doing a good job on the mainland.

We’ve got our own bureau in the country that is doing extremely well and filing stories not only for CNBC, but for NBC across the globe. We aim to take the appropriate next steps to continue growing in the country.