Financial TV is Financial Porn

by Satyajit Das
September 12, 2011

Financial TV is pornography—sleazy, intrusive, seeking to titillate, and shock. During a crisis, these programs can be compulsive. Once, pornographic scripts had a passing interest in improbable plot and implausible dialogue. In the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, Jackie Treehorn bemoans falling standards in adult entertainment. Competition from cheap amateur pornographic films means that professionals can no longer afford the extra investment in story, production value, and feeling. Financial TV never bothered with plot, dialogue, or production values, focusing only on the action.

The 24/7 Joycean stream-of-consciousness financial noise machine calls for successive, rolling segments—pre-market, market, post-market, recapping today’s market and, finally, looking forward to tomorrow’s market. The formula requires an anchor or two. The only part of Louis Rukeyser’s legacy that survives is the fashion sense. Rukeyser (the permanently tanned, urbane, award-winning presenter of Wall Street Week, one of the original TV shows on money) was voted the best-dressed man in finance and America’s most sartorially elegant TV host. Playboy magazine described him as a “rakish raconteur.” Today’s TV hosts are well dressed, impeccably groomed, and perfectly coiffed.

Rudimentary sets create the illusion of overlooking a frenetic exchange or a city panorama, made possible by computer imagery. The occasional outside shot on the steps of a stock exchange or outside some monumental bank headquarters interrupts the visual monotony.

The fare is constant financial news and interviews with in-house (paid) and outside (unpaid) experts. A ticker-stream of breaking stories and market information scrolls along the peripheries of the screen. Graphs and various visuals assault the senses. The soundtrack is a series of video game noises, typically when the screen changes. The amphetamine-charged pace features interviewers and guests repeatedly interrupting and constantly talking over each other. Presenters take the title of CNBC’s signature show—Squawk Box—literally.

The editorial approach requires drama:

Human beings have an innate desire to be told and to tell dramatic

stories…. I am at a loss to name a single operatic work that

treats coronary artery disease as its subject but I can name several

where murder, incest, and assassination play a key part in the

story.

This is money, Jerry Springer or Howard Stern shock-jock style.

Speedy Money

Through the day, a succession of guests is interviewed on the topic of the moment—news, just released statistics, government policy announcements, or the latest good or bad news. TV follows its print rival: “If it bleeds, it leads!” The aim is to shed light on the impact of the news on the market.

But as Donald Rumsfeld astutely observed: “The problem is that people think that news is something that is announced before it happens, as opposed to something that is reported when it does happen.” Each interview is about 5 to 10 minutes—only divine beings get longer. Presenters are unlikely “to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary” (to use William Faulkner’s observation about Ernest Hemingway).

Sensible interviewees offer equivocal opinions to preserve plausible deniability. Rumsfeld once masterfully set out the mechanisms of evasion: “I’m working my way over to figuring out how I won’t answer.” The alternative is former U.S. Vice-President Dan Quayle’s formula: “I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy—but that could change.”

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