CNBC has made its bones on delivering financial news and advice, but with Jim Ackerman on board as SVP, primetime alternative since 2012 it’s made a mark in reality shows, too. No surprise; Ackerman comes from a history of hit reality series at VH1, and while at CNBC he’s developed several hits, including The Profit and Restaurant Startup. Ackerman believes that all great shows have great stories and great characters at their core, but as he told Randee Dawn for Cynsiders, executives need to look at all the possibilities when it comes to boosting ratings and keeping fans loyal.
Cynsiders: What do you see as your biggest challenge over at CNBC?
Jim Ackerman: We all face the proliferation of shows and competition, and have difficulties in finding a formula that somehow gets you noticed. We’re all looking for some way to stand out. Sometimes a gimmick can get you there if the gimmick is organic to the show, like [Discovery’s] Naked and Afraid.
Cynsiders: But a gimmick can be like fast food – a quick hit and no substance.
Ackerman: As long as it’s organic to the idea, people will watch. We’re trying to set a trend by making investment real.
Cynsiders: So how do you determine what is a gimmick and what will have legs?
Ackerman: You can try to apply an algorithm, but a lot of it is analysis. When someone pitches you an idea you have to run through the series and ask, “What happens in Act 2 of Season 3?” If they can’t answer that question, you have a problem. Then you have a gimmick that isn’t going to be a lasting idea.
Cynsiders: CNBC’s dayside is dropping Nielsen’s ratings as a measuring tool. What about primetime?
Ackerman: This is only for the dayside; it does not affect primetime at all. But what I do know is that Nielsen doesn’t measure affluent homes, it doesn’t measure C-suite [executive] offices, they’re not in gyms – and that’s where CNBC is playing. That’s part of the issue.
Cynsiders: Recent studies point to cable viewership leveling off or even declining. Is that just a natural settling after a lot of years of growth?
Ackerman: There are so many outlets, and people are being taken away from television – or they’re watching television on their iPad, which is not being measured, or they’re watching on their phone which is not being measured, or they’re playing on their X-Box, games and so forth. Is the pool diminishing? Possibly, but there are still 300 million Americans out there and there are a lot of options. It makes it more challenging.
Cynsiders: How important is social media to spreading the brand?
Ackerman: There are certain shows on the scripted side where there’s real engagement on social media. I would love to get that for our shows, and we encourage our partners to tweet and interact on Facebook, so people can spread the word for us. Tweeting at 10 hardcore viewers can really help you build your numbers. To ignore those areas is foolish and short-sighted.
Cynsiders: Reality programming has also been taking a hit; formulas that worked for a long time are not drawing viewers, and there’s criticism about over-scripting of so-called reality shows.
Ackerman: We don’t script anything. There are shows that essentially have table reads, but we’re putting people in situations that are inherently stressful. By nature, that’s going to be dramatic. Clearly, there is a hidden hand in steering the [first act] but after that you follow along. These aren’t Frederick Wiseman documentaries, though.
Cynsiders: Do you plan on going into scripted or game shows on CNBC?
Ackerman: For now we’re on a great path with reality, focused on business right now. But clearly we’re looking down the road at ways to attract eyeballs. We want to be pragmatic.
Cynsiders: Is there a line between pulling more eyeballs and preserving the brand? Not everybody can be USA Network, which caters to the masses.
Ackerman: Ultimately the game is eyeballs. We’re in the business of delivering a mass audience and you can always find some shows – like Pawn Stars on History – you can find some ways to make it work. I don’t think the audience is so precious about preserving the core of a brand. They just want to watch a good show.
Cynsiders: Why should someone invest their time in CNBC programming?
Ackerman: This will sound slightly hokey but I think entrepreneurship is very much on people’s minds right now. The idea that you can have an idea and invest a little bit of money and work hard to achieve that idea – that goes to the core American values of hard work and success. You watch the shows because they’re entertaining, but they also have some takeaway.
The Profit returns in Spring 2015; Restaurant Startup airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on CNBC.
The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large. In their own words, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at RDawn (@) cynopsis.com