Whether it’s a poor time slot, behind-the-scenes squabbles, an outdated news format, a slower post-Trump news cycle, or just a once-popular anchor taking his frustrations out on staffers, CNBC insiders have a lot of reasons for why Shepard Smith’s show has failed to capture major ratings. But one thing many agree on is that it has not met the bosses’ expectations.
In the nine months since he went on the air for NBCUniversal’s financial news network, Smith has put out a slickly produced, no-nonsense evening news show that prizes on-the-ground reporting over the talking-head panel fights that define many of his cable news competitors.
But The News with Shepard Smith, the brainchild of CNBC chairman Mark Hoffman, has struggled to attract the millions of viewers who watched Smith every day for years at Fox News, or to produce the fiery breakout viral moments that defined the later part of his tenure at the conservative cable-news giant. And those struggles have seemingly fostered some turmoil within the network and the show’s staff. This story is based on interviews with nine current and former CNBC staffers.
Smith’s arrival at CNBC last year took many cable-news insiders by surprise. The star anchor abruptly left Fox News in 2019 in the middle of a three-year contract and amid public clashes with some of the network’s high-profile conservative hosts, including Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity.
A traditional broadcast anchor with little appetite for the partisan or ideological programming that has come to define cable news, Smith entertained discussions with a number of competitors including CBS News, but ultimately signed with CNBC in 2020 on a deal rumored to be in the $5-6 million ballpark—a significant pay cut from the roughly $30-million salary he was believed to be raking in at Fox News. Smith’s salary and the resources Hoffman has thrown at his show have created a tremendous amount of resentment from other CNBC talent, according to multiple insiders familiar with the situation.
“It’s been less than a year since we launched The News with Shepard Smith and we are incredibly proud of the high quality journalism and powerful storytelling the team produces every week night,” a CNBC spokesman told The Daily Beast. “While news viewers’ habits take time to change, The News has far outperformed in the 7pm timeslot from the same time period in 2020 and in June, viewers watched 7.2 million hours across TV, digital and social platforms, which was double-digit percentage growth month-over-month.”
CNBC had high hopes for the new program. The network built its star a new studio at CNBC headquarters in New Jersey and shelled out more money to build a separate one at Smith’s palatial Hamptons home owing to the pandemic, according to the people familiar with the situation. The show staffed up with some of Smith’s former Fox News colleagues, as well as CNBC veterans, almost all of whom worked quickly to launch the show before the 2020 election in the hopes of capitalizing on some of the increased news viewership around the historic race.
But the viewers never seemed to show up.
According to Nielsen Media Research, the show averaged just 197,000 total viewers in June, losing a third of its viewers since the show’s peak in February, which saw an average of 296,000 nightly viewers. The show is currently the seventh-highest rated program on CNBC and 11th in the key demographic of viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 years old.
“There’s no question Shep is a talented news anchor with a well-defined persona,” Jon Klein, former president of CNN/US and current chairman of TAPP Media, told The Daily Beast. “The show’s struggles indicate how important it is that a program fit the overall identity of its network, because viewers almost never tune into a specific show at a specific time anymore—they go to particular networks for a certain kind of experience.”
And the show has faced its fair share of internal friction, some of which has centered on the host himself. Smith is seen as a pro with high news standards prone to generous gestures—he famously sends his employees several hundred dollars every year as a holiday bonus—but amid a wider re-evaluation of bullying in media workplaces, some staffers have complained that he is difficult to deal with.
At least two people with direct knowledge of the situation described Smith as having regular “temper tantrums.” When CNBC announced Smith was joining the business news channel, it tapped Sandy Cannold, a veteran TV producer, to help helm the show along with co-executive producer Sally Ramirez, a veteran of local television. But according to multiple people familiar with the matter, Cannold departed less than six months in, and clashed at times with Smith in front of staff.
Other employees were also frustrated when, in recent weeks, the show laid off two of the few non-white employees on its production team.
Smith’s underperformance in the ratings hasn’t come as a surprise to cable-news insiders.
For one, much of Smith’s allure in the final years of his Fox News tenure may have come from his status as seemingly the only daily hard-news anchor at the network, where he often provided scathing fact-checks of his conservative colleagues and seemed alien to the network’s editorial focus on right-wing outrages of the day. Without that tension, the veteran news anchor blends in with a crowded field of consummate news reporters.
And CNBC has consistently struggled to find its ratings rhythm outside of the shows built around the hours of operation at the New York Stock Exchange. Smith’s straightforward format, with segments built around the biggest news stories of the day, is an outlier among its competitors. Since signing Smith last year, the network has largely left him out on his own in the 7 p.m. hour, sandwiched between Jim Cramer’s frenetic, after-market financial show and episodes of Shark Tank, the popular business reality-TV show.
The network is aware of the challenges Smith’s show faces at 7 p.m. with little cohesive programming help from its lead-in hours. CNBC insiders told The Daily Beast that network executives have discussed expanding the primetime news hours around Smith. And within the past year, the network even considered moving Cramer, one of the network’s most notable figures, out of the 6 p.m. time slot, which he has occupied for years as the host of the iconic show Mad Money, according to people familiar with the matter.
“CNBC makes sense of business and money—it’s not a general news network. Shep’s show would probably perform better on a news network like CNN, unless they pivot to become a pure business analysis show, an end-of-day deep dive into what is moving markets,” added Klein, the former CNN executive.
But the network has maintained that Smith’s show is an improvement on the network’s previous primetime efforts. And the underwhelming ratings and at-times tumultuous launch during a pandemic haven’t seemed to bother Smith either.
In a statement to the Washington Post last year, he downplayed the show’s early ratings woes, saying he experienced no pressure from above to deliver an immediate ratings smash.
“I don’t know where we’re supposed to be” in viewership, Smith told the Post. “We’ve had no discussions about ratings with our staff. None of our senior leadership team has ever sat down and talked about [it]. What we have to do is build a great newscast… and then eventually people will come to that or they won’t.”
A CNBC spokesperson didn’t waste an opportunity to give the ratings-deficient show a push with viewers when commenting on this story.
“The newscast will continue to create impactful content for its audience and welcome any viewer interested in learning more about the facts, the truth, The News with Shepard Smith weeknights at 7pm ET on CNBC,” the spokesperson emailed The Daily Beast.