02.04.09

Behind the Shakeup at CNBC

After turning around the cable business channel, Jonathan Wald made news by walking away from CNBC. Will it change the network’s fortunes?

Yesterday morning, CNBC president Mark Hoffman announced in a memo to staff that senior vice-president for business news, Jonathan Wald, would be leaving the network. In the ensuing coverage and chatter, the word that seemed to come up again and again was "surprise"—surprise that seemingly amiable negotiations to extend the contract of the man credited with revitalizing CNBC could come to such an impasse, and surprise that an executive would leave the financial network during the worst economic crisis in almost a century—and the best financial story.

"He made the channel better to watch at a very important time,” says one longtime network colleague, “but—with Jonathan there's always a but."

Hoffman's memo said he was "disappointed" that the two could not agree on terms of a new agreement—Wald’s contract was set to expire on March 31—and that they'd been having "months of conversations" trying to work it out. For his part, Wald told the Daily Beast: "They wanted me to stay, I wanted to stay—we just couldn't in the end work out a deal we could both be happy with."

Here was the source of the collective eyebrow raise. Is it really that hard to retain your top executive in a recession during the best run in your network's 20-year history? When he doesn't even have another job lined up?

Apparently so.

But maybe it's not such a surprise. If you're the guy who's gotten the credit for a double-digit ratings hike in 2006 and 2007—not to mention the exponential spike during the financial crisis—at some point, you're going to want a promotion. But Hoffman has reportedly just re-upped to stay on for another five years so moving up a rung was not at option. You're also going to want some money—but according to sources within NBC and CNBC, Hoffman wasn't ponying up.

Wald is a 16-year veteran of NBC, having spent most those years at 30 Rock, as the Executive Producer of NBC Nightly News and then as the Executive Producer of the lucrative Today show. But that tenure was short-lived and he was removed from the post 16 months later, despite being on top in the ratings. It was reported that he had " lost the confidence" of anchors Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. He ended up at CNBC two years later. Wald declined to comment on any disparity in salary between the two jobs, but as one insider observed: "There's broadcast and then there's cable."

After three years of helping to turn CNBC around in daytime and expanding business news into prime time and weekends with documentaries and breaking news specials, one could hardly think Hoffman had "lost confidence" in Wald (the Bernie Madoff-themed "Scam of the Century" and the dime-bag themed "Marijuana, Inc." have been the highest-rated programs in CNBC history). That said, he is known for throwing some sharp elbows, and has his fair share of frenemies in high and low places. "He made the channel better to watch at a very important time,” says one longtime network colleague, “but—with Jonathan there's always a but."

Another highly-placed Englewood Cliffs source sees those sharp elbows as more of a big ol' hug: "He has a lot of fans—a lot." Wald, who created the original On The Money, put Dylan Ratigan back in the chair for Fast Money after Bullseye was cancelled, and has shepherded a healthy rotation of CNBC staffers through big-boy network shows like Nightly News and Meet The Press has developed a reputation for staff loyalty. "He protects everybody," said the source.

Wald is practically royalty at NBC. His father, Richard Wald, is a former NBC News president and longtime Roone Arledge deputy at ABC News (aka cross-network royalty). Father and son teach a graduate course together at the Columbia School of Journalism. After a stint in local news in Boston, Wald's first assignment at NBC News in the early '90s was as a traveling producer for a new, promising national correspondent who'd just been hired away from CBS: Brian Williams.

Still, Wald's public face on the matter is chipper: "I love Mark, he's great—he and I had a great working relationship." The fact that Wald is staying on through the end of the quarter to help choose his successor and ease the transition is significant, too—if he were going to a competitor or there was bad blood, he probably wouldn't be kicking around. (Rumors that Wald was going to Bloomberg to replace departing managing editor Jonathan Meehan were disputed; Wald says he had some "projects in the works" but declined to elaborate.)

Wald said that leaving was "bittersweet," but isn't worried about the channel he helped reinvent. "They're in great shape," he said, displaying a little modesty borrowed from Charles de Gaulle: "The cemeteries of the world are filled with indispensible men."

Rachel Sklar is the former Media Editor for the Huffington Post and the author of A Stroke of Luck: Life, Crisis and Rebirth of a Stroke Survivor. She is currently working on Jew-ish, a humorous book about cultural identity. In the meantime, she works with media consulting firm Abrams Research, recently launched online micro-giving site Charitini, and Twitters up a storm. Follow her here.