When earth-shattering financial news breaks, the cable business news networks get their chance to shine.
So one would have expected to see all three of them spring into action three days ago, when Standard & Poor's lowered the United States credit rating for the first time in nearly a century. The ratings agency downgraded America's AAA standing to AA-plus in the wake of the recent congressional debt debacle.
And indeed, two leading cable business outlets were all over the news. Bloomberg TV produced a live special report for S&P's downgrade announcement, shortly after 8 p.m. Friday evening. At the time, Bloomberg economics editor Michael McKee was covering Cumberland Advisers' annual fishing trip in rural Maine, so he was able to jump on the air immediately with heavyweights such as the economists Nouriel Roubini and Barry Ritholtz for a special that lasted two and a half hours. Fox Business Network broke into a special report with Gerri Willis shortly thereafter, covering the details of the announcement live from 9-11 p.m., and again with Neil Cavuto on Saturday.
But CNBC, the most-watched and--many would argue--most influential of the three, devoted its Friday evening schedule to repeats of "60 Minutes," "How I Made My Millions" and "Remington Under Fire." By Sunday evening, all the networks had cued up special reports--and inevitably have focused most of their programing today on the market reaction, as have the general news channels.
To be fair, it's not as if CNBC was late to the party. In fact, correspondent Kate Kelly reported around 4:30 Friday afternoon on "Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo" that the government was bracing for a downgrade. So perhaps, then, viewers of the "First in Business Worldwide" were surprised when they had to turn to the competition to follow the downgrade story on Friday night?
Brian Steel, a spokesman for CNBC, pushed back on the suggestion that the network dropped the ball.
"CNBC is always working on-air and on-line and that's why hours before S&P made their 'official' announcement CNBC had already broken and analyzed the downgrade news," he told The Cutline. Steel also pointed out that CNBC landed a high-profile exclusive with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner for its Sunday prime-time special, hosted by Bartiromo.
But this isn't the only time recently that CNBC has caught flak for staying in tape on a weekend when massive news was breaking on its beat. Two Sundays ago, it was likewise the only cable news network that didn't go live to carry President Obama's announcement that a debt deal had been reached.
"After this week CNBC should change its slogan ... to 'First in business when we feel like it,'" snarled the anonymous blogger of Inside Cable News. "Yes, CNBC your behavior has been that bad."
The network dismisses such criticism, pointing to the scale and influential character of its viewership. "The most affluent and influential people in the world, from Wall Street to Main Street, rely on CNBC everyday to deliver fast, accurate, actionable and unbiased coverage," Steel insisted.
In any case, all three cable-business networks have lined up big coverage heading into this evening, with reports from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. CNBC will run a live interview with S&P president Deven Sharma at 4 p.m. Fox Business will stay live with the story tonight instead of going to tape, with special coverage helmed by Liz Claman. And Bloomberg will air "Downgrade: A Special Report" at 9 p.m.