SHOW BUSINESS

03.28.14

Maria Bartiromo: What Went Wrong at CNBC, and Why the ‘Money Honey’ Moved to Fox

Famous as the 'Money Honey,' Maria Bartiromo is about to begin a Sunday morning show on the Fox News Channel—but not before firing a ringing broadside at her former CNBC bosses.

The “Money Honey” may have moved across the street--from CNBC to Fox--but she’s still the same hyper-competitive, no-nonsense, Brooklyn-born business enthusiast that viewers have come to know as Maria Bartiromo.

“I’m not changing,” the 46-year-old financial news luminary told me on Thursday as she rode back from a sit-down with Ken Frazier, the chairman and CEO of the Merck pharmaceutical empire in the wilds of northern New Jersey. “I’ve always been competitive when it comes to interviews, and I intend to remain the same person.”

The constant battle to book exclusive airtime with heavy hitters like Frazier actually figured in Bartiromo’s stunning decision last November to cross enemy lines from CNBC, where she’d been a franchise player for two decades, to join the Fox Business Network, Roger Ailes’s second-place financial television operation, along with the top-rated Fox News Channel.

“It wasn’t just the intense competition, it was a competition with my own company at CNBC,” said Bartiromo, who is marking five weeks of anchoring her two-hour stock market program on FBN, Opening Bell with Maria Bartiromo, and on Sunday debuts her live hour-long interview show on Fox News, Sunday Morning Futures with Maria Bartiromo.  (In other words, her famous name and face are all over both cable outlets.) “Six or seven years ago, my boss came and said, ‘Maria, you’re the only one who’s working, the only one who’s picking up the phone and getting big hitters on the air, and I need to make other people do that.’”

“Unfortunately, it was being in an environment where I was competing with my own company all the time. It got very frustrating to me.”

The result was worse than annoying. Frequently, she recounted, she’d persuade a financial titan like billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, the chief executive of the Blackstone Group private equity firm, to come on her afternoon show, Closing Bell, only to have various CNBC producers pull him aside and try to poach him for their own programs. “Unfortunately, it was being in an environment where I was competing with my own company all the time,” she said. “It got very frustrating to me.”

There were certainly other compelling reasons to jump ship. Ailes is an old friend and mentor. He was Bartiromo’s boss at CNBC in the mid-1990s when he made her a star--the first television journalist to report live from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He was also reportedly offering a nice uptick in pay--from an estimated $4 million a year at CNBC to $1 million to $2 million more at Fox--as well as a live network Sunday show (instead of her taped syndicated weekend program, On the Money) and the freedom to conduct lengthy on-air interviews as she saw fit. She was also given a classy title, Global Markets Editor.

“I was at CNBC for 20 years and I loved it,” she told me earlier this week in her office, located midst a murderer’s row of Fox News personalities that include Shepard Smith, Gretchen Carlson and Bill O’Reilly. She even embraced, indeed capitalized on, the sexist "Money Honey" moniker bestowed upon her.

“But," she tells me, "they presented a contract to me that they wanted me to sign for another five years--and it would have been five years of doing what I was doing.”

The main problem at CNBC was something Bartiromo calls “short-termism,” which can be defined as an imperative to skate along the surface of things in lightning-quick sound bites, lest the audience become bored and change the channel.

 “There was always a major pressure on me to have lot of people on at once,” she said. “I mean, you turn on CNBC today and you see, like, six boxes all the time, and every conversation is a debate to bring heat. I was frustrated that I was forced to have all these people on the air at once, and then you only give the segment six minutes--so everybody gets, like, 30 seconds…That was what people wanted in the ‘90s, but today I really do feel that audiences want something different.”

She and her Closing Bell producers fought, with limited success, to obtain approval for longer segments featuring a single interview subject, but they were inevitably beaten back in the end and forced to revert to form. The process made her “weary,” she said. A fancy dinner at the January 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with CNBC President Mark Hoffman--in which her boss tried to charm her into re-upping--gave her little hope that things would change.

“It was a big decision, but I had to say to myself, what will my brand look like after another five years?’ ” Bartiromo told me. “People will say, ‘oh, there’s that woman who’s been at CNBC for 25 years who does the sound-bite situations,’ right? So that’s really why I felt like I had to make a change.”

So she let her contract run out to the bitter end on Nov. 24, which allowed her agent at CAA, Richard Lovett, to negotiate with Fox. “It was a little awkward, but that’s how these media contracts work,” she said. “And, by the way, there was another thing--which was hard. They force you to do nothing for 60 days, so that’s what I did. I was off the air.”

During the 60-day enforcement period of the non-compete clause, Bartiromo did manage to take a couple of rare vacations--a long weekend with her sister in Milan, shopping and catching La Traviata at La Scala, and hiking in Arizona with her husband, WisdomTree financial management CEO Jonathan Steinberg--but most of the time she simply endured, a workaholic soul in television purgatory. “In retrospect I should have gone to the Caribbean and put my feet up,” she told me, clearly not meaning it.

At FBN, where arguably the Bartiromo brand is bigger at the moment than the network’s, there’s a spring in her step and a smile on her face. “Everyone has been so unbelievably warm and welcoming,” she said, “and it doesn’t seem like it’s your typical cutthroat environment--which is what I had become so used to.”

Already she has booked a roster of high-powered guests that her former colleagues at CNBC would be happy to have on their air: among them Blackstone’s Schwarzman, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Sex and The City star turned fashion and fragrance entrepreneur Sarah Jessica Parker, discussing her new line of shoes.

Bartiromo prides herself on not doing “gotcha interviews,” and her program is by definition business-friendly, which on Thursday was a courtesy extended even to convicted felon Joe Nacchio, the former chief of executive of Qwest Communications who recently was sprung from prison on an insider trading rap.

Over the course of three lengthy segments, Nacchio--who will be the subject of an hour-long special hosted by Bartiromo--spun out an amazing if unlikely tale of how the Feds railroaded him to jail after he refused to cooperate with a National Security Agency demand that he help the spy agency with something nefarious that he still couldn’t talk about because it remains classified.

“Look, I’m not vouching for him, I’m interviewing him, and this is what he says,” said Bartiromo, whose special will presumably provide more context concerning Nacchio, an occasional guest on her old CNBC show. “I understand what you’re saying. He went to jail. He’s an ex-con. He must have done something wrong.”

Bartiromo said her Sunday show, which will air at 10 a.m. Eastern Time, will be different from such staples as Meet the Press and Face the Nation in that it will focus on business and the economy, and feature guests who actually “get their hands dirty” running businesses, representing workers, or meeting a payroll.

“I feel like you turn on all the political shows and it’s all the politicos talking their talking points, and very rarely do you get anybody connecting the dots,” she said. “I’m hopefully going to be able to give business a voice in the conversation on Sundays. So rather than hearing from a politico who says tax reform should look like this, immigration reform looks like that, I would rather have a CEO say, ‘Look, I have all these billions overseas, and I’m not gonna bring the money back because here’s what I need tax reform to look like.’ Or, ‘Look, I have all this money that I would like to create jobs with, but I’m not gonna do that because I can’t find the skill sets required.’…So my goal is to really get people with a stake in the ground on the air.”

Bartiromo was initially reluctant to reveal who this Sunday’s guests are---“because as soon as I tell you, the competition is going to come and try to outwit me”--but she ultimately relented and mentioned two of them: Larry Summers, President Obama’s former economic guru and a Clinton-era Treasury Secretary, and Dr. Toby Cosgrove, president of the Cleveland Clinic, discussing the impact of Obamacare as the enrollment deadline nears.

The business establishment, obviously, contains few fans of the president. “There is a perception that he doesn’t listen to them,” Bartiromo said. “He calls everybody to the White House, they do their meetings, they do their photo op, and then no one follows up.”

Bartiromo carefully measures her words. President Obama, of course, would be a great get.