THE BASIS POINT

The CNBC-ing Of Bloomberg

Yes or No question: should financial media be entertaining?

If you said No, you’re lying to yourself.

Financial media is media first, and financial information second. So it must be entertaining to get ratings and pay the bills.

That’s why CNBC has people debating all day long, because everyone loves a fight.

It didn’t used to be that way. The shift away from pure reporting to the debate model rose slowly for years at CNBC but spiked as the crisis escalated in 2007.

I switched to Bloomberg TV as my background noise around that time. Much more subdued anchors and a more hard news tone. But they have that luxury since TV is gravy and the real money comes from their data services.

Still, even Bloomberg is now slowly shifting toward entertainment flair: cooler bumper music into and out of commercials, more multi-anchor debates, and more CNBC folks coming on board.

The latest is Trish Regan who joined this week. She was a CNBC fixture before defecting, and like Margaret Brennan before her, she’s starting off brash—more CNBC than Bloomberg.

In Brennan’s early Bloomberg weeks after she left CNBC in summer 2009, she was the same way: very strong opinions, more pushy with guests and fellow anchors.

Which you could argue is good journalism, but it’s just a form of in-your-face financial entertainment that CNBC pioneered.

Up to now, Bloomberg is far more journalistic in my view. The calmer demeanor of their anchors—including the young guns like Matt Miller and Julie Hyman—lets their sources and the issues shine, which is what journalism is all about.

Brennan has transformed and now embodies this traditional Bloomberg model. Great journalist first, star/entertainer second.

Now it will be interesting to see if Regan follows the same path of conforming to traditional Bloomberg tone. Feels less likely though because one of her top tasks in 2012 is election coverage. By its very nature, political coverage is about heated debates. It gets ratings too. Regan knows this.

Which means we may see the ever-composed Al Hunt slowly fade as Bloomberg’s politico and Regan rise up in his place, rewriting Bloomberg’s formula as she does. Journalists are ever-composed. Stars rise. So the thing to watch will be whether Regan can bring the two together.

All that said, now back to the question: should financial media be entertaining?

Yes it should be. But not at the cost of the journalism.

So where does this leave the consumer?

Financial media is a way to keep up on markets, but consumers will never develop a sound retirement plan from a trader’s 90-second spot sharing his latest picks, and they’ll never figure out whether it’s time to buy a home in their local area by watching several anchors chatter about national home price data with Robert Shiller.

So why am I saying all of this?

These financial media vs. entertainment vs. actual financial advice concepts have been rattling around in my head because of a comment Tadas Viskanta made last week on his Abnormal Returns blog.

He said that 2012 market outlooks flooding financial media right now are more about self-promotion for the investor than they are about actual investing. He made the point as an intro to a piece he ran by financial advisor Carl Richards entitled Investing Is Not Entertainment.

Go read it. It’s a great reminder that there’s a distinct line between entertainment and managing your finances.

Of course the piece (which is a book excerpt) is done by a financial advisor who’s become a fixture in financial media because he’s incredibly entertaining.

So where are those lines again between financial media, entertainment, and actual advice? Very blurry…