Interview with Dan Colarusso, SVP of CNBC
How do you broadcast live TV during a pandemic?
In this week’s podcast, we speak with Dan Colarusso, SVP of CNBC, who discusses how they transformed their daily newsroom to a new world of remote broadcasts and social distancing.
Hello and welcome to the RP HealthCast by Rooney Partners. I’m your host Jeffrey Freedman.
The RP HealthCast is a weekly podcast series about the stories around the latest news and innovations in medicine and healthcare. To learn about these stories, we thought it best to hand over the microphone to those who are actually building and writing about the future. So typically, we either speak with leaders of companies behind the latest breakthroughs in medicine and technology or with journalists to discuss their stories on important issues surrounding the healthcare ecosystem, but this week we’re speaking with a special guest who’s leading a television newsroom during the COVID-19 crisis. This pandemic is still wreaking havoc within our society. And today we have over 800,000 Americans with the virus and forty-three thousand fatalities. Here in New York, it’s still a scary time as I’m sure it is all over the country. And our governor, Andrew Cuomo, just told us that will be sheltering at home for at least another month, and a large portion of our country’s been put on hold. There is no escaping the havoc this is wreaking on everyone.
Last week we spoke with Paul Sullivan from The New York Times. Paul’s a journalist, and he’s able to write and work from home, and he can easily send his articles into the news desk. This week, we’re going to take a different look at our news reporting. We’re going to look at it from the eyes of live television. Now keeping a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week television newsroom functioning and operational in the best of times, it’s always an imperative and hard to do, but even more so during a global crisis. The viewing audience needs to stay informed and be reminded of things like social distancing. But at the same time, the news team also has to practice social distancing. So how did TV networks and cable news platforms continue to broadcast 24 hours a day everyday, while managing to protect their staff from this highly contagious virus? This question and many others are the subject of this week’s podcast interview. To address this topic, we’re pleased to have as our guest Dan Colarusso.
Dan is the senior vice president of CNBC Business News. Dan’s responsible for overseeing television news content, its coverage, and its production for the network’s business day programming. Dan welcome and thank you for joining us today.
Dan: Oh anytime, my pleasure.
Jeffrey: Great, before we get started though, how are you and your CNBC colleagues holding up – both emotionally and physically during this time? I know you had a few correspondents that actually have the virus.
Dan: Yes, one or two. There were some producers as well. But we did manage to do very early physical dispersion. We managed to keep our sites operating, so that was good. We have three different sites where we broadcast out of, so we’ve moved into one and moved into people’s homes. But right now, thanks for asking, everybody is holding up well physically, and it seems like everybody, emotionally, feels like they’re being taken care of and the company’s working very hard to support them and provide whatever technology or just whatever they need actually along the lines. Nobody’s ever been here before at this point in history, so we’re working hard to make sure that we anticipate and react quickly to to what people need.
Jeffrey: No, that’s great. That’s great to hear. And that’s kind of what we’re going to get into, right? What what has been history, and what is present, and what are we going to do in the future? So to start, let’s give our listeners a little bit of background. Can you explain how CNBC operated before the coronavirus and what was the traditional workflow?
Dan: Well it’s live television, so I think we had three live broadcast sets. We have one in Englewood Cliffs, we have one at the New York Stock Exchange, and we had one at the NASDAQ market site, in addition to our bureaus in Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco in LA. So what we had to do quickly was anticipate what could go wrong at these places. There’s a workforce in two of them that isn’t under our control at all – our staff is, but there are a lot of people coming in and out of the New York Stock Exchange, a lot of people coming in and out of NASDAQ, and they managed their situation is very well, we reacted when the New York Stock Exchange had to close the floor, we stayed an extra day, and then we came back to Englewood Cliffs, or we sent anchors to their homes. I think the big win for us is that instant we were able to turn anchors homes through technology, whether it was a Padcaster or a live view camera or some other setup. We were able to quickly turn anchors’ homes into sets, and they could broadcast without ever leaving home. So their families were taken care of, they weren’t being exposed to any people or sites that we couldn’t fully control. So that was really worthwhile.
That’s been at the biggest change. Everything is remote. There are no more guests in the studio. We had to learn how to broadcast the show with three anchors who were usually on the set together and could read each other’s body language and get each other’s eye rolls or whatever they do on camera – they couldn’t see that anymore. They had to get used to that and that causes some mechanical problems in production. So we had to make sure that was there. The other part was we had to get guests accustomed to not being on a set, and these are people who aren’t TV professionals. So it’s a little nerve-wracking when your remote and you’re a guest. That was another process we’ve had to walk people through. A lot of what happens in person, a lot of the emotion and the resonance that goes into producing live television isn’t there anymore. We had to find ways to to make sure we kept some part of it there, and I think we have.
The other part is location shots. We can’t send correspondents around the country anymore. We’d love to document the profound pain of Main Street, USA and small businesses. Eight weeks ago, we would have done it in one way. We would have sent a camera and a crew and a producer and a talent out to a main street, somewhere. We can’t do that at this point. So we do it remotely, we’ve learned to use user-generated content, meaning people telling their own stories to their smartphones, and then us producing it and packaging it into something a little more elegant into television content that we consider informative, useful, and quasi-historic in a sense. It’s become a test of new technology and old tricks and a meeting of the two of them into somewhere fairly tight.
Jeffrey: That is an undertaking.
Dan: Yes, and I should just say, the other part is planning as well. We run an editorial meeting every day and they’re 60 or 70 people on it. I’m used to doing that meeting with 20 or 30 people in a room and the rest of them calling in, and now it’s a total dial-in situation. So it requires a lot more energy on behalf of my team to keep the meeting moving and make sure we include the right people at the right time. That’s delicate choreography as well because of who gets the pitch and who gets to give their best foot forward. The producers in the shows have that as one of their main resources to where they get ideas from. That’s become a big that’s become a big thing for us, to working on that meeting and making sure our meetings are a little more active than they are normally.
Jeffrey: You mentioned the use of new technology and old technology, but new technology since nobody was prepared for this, and you mentioned setting everybody up in their homes. Did you have that technology? Do you have the hardware? Was it sitting around?
Dan: [chuckle] We went out and got it. One of our technical executives had been scouting out the use of these Padcasters, which is essentially a device into which you plug an iPad, and it gives you proper lighting and proper sound and proper connectivity that acts almost like a full-on remote camera. So we had been looking at them and hoping to experiment with him, and in a few cases– we step softly into– we didn’t do this all in one shot. We had a few delivered and then that worked with some remote shots with correspondents, and then we had a few more delivered and we tried some anchors, but we’re very careful to– we have a lot of shows that are anchored by more than one person. We try to have one person or a backup in Englewood Cliffs or NASDAQ at a place with full-on hardwire connectivity and cameras so that if we go down, if any of these devices go down or they freeze, we’re able to come back to home base fairly quickly so it doesn’t disrupt the audience.
This is a lot of learning on the fly. We had a lot of frozen faces when we were rehearsing it, not on the air live. We had a few on the air live. We’ve had sound drop off a few times. But the bigger issue we had was about internet bandwidth in general and how much traffic was going to be coming through the pipes to accommodate it. So we moved everybody to pretty strong connections where we had to go into people’s homes and improve their connectivity, we did. It was like an airlift to the degree that we were out buying these, and as they were coming in in one door, they were going out another door to be distributed around. Now we’re at a level where we even have contributors, not even full on CNBC people, but contributors to the network, some of them have Padcasters because they’re more regular guests than others. So it’s become a thing, but it was on-the-job training, without a doubt and we didn’t know what the vulnerabilities were in full. But we worked through them, we have a great tech ops team here, obviously, and they pulled the wagon on this one and really were able to deliver it, but it was on the fly.
And then we had some people who had full-on camera setups in their homes. That was a slightly different situation. But you don’t want to bring a camera operator into somebody’s home because where have they been? So it’s a delicate dance between keeping people safe and keeping people on the air.
Jeffrey: Right, and it has to be, it’s a whole new world [chuckle]. And I want to explore that in a couple minutes, but you mentioned a few times that headquartered in Englewood, New Jersey. Now most New York area TV studios, they’re located in Manhattan. And you’re located across the Hudson River in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. So I imagine you have employees living both in New York and New Jersey. Is there any advantage that you find by being situated across the George Washington Bridge?
Dan: Not that I could think of obviously. The one advantage is that we run shuttle services between Manhattan and Brooklyn and parts of Jersey to Englewood Cliffs, to the office, and people can drive in, so it keeps them off mass transit. It keeps them off the subway. That, to me, has been the big benefit because that’s a vulnerability, right? Exposure. You limit the contact. The vans are cleaned a couple of times a day. They’re exclusively used by CNBC folks. The drivers have had masks and gloves back before anybody really was wearing masks and gloves, in my case at least.
It’s an interesting experiment to get people out here. You would think it would be a disadvantage, but actually it’s worked really well because it allowed us to control the transport side of it, which if we were in Times Square, if we were down on Wall Street, if we were anywhere else we wouldn’t be able to control it as well.
Jeffrey: Real interesting in that regard because you mentioned before that you still have people in the newsrooms now, I imagine–
Dan: Not many.
Jeffrey: Well, right. I mean before the coronavirus, I’m sure the newsroom was a beehive of activity daily. Every morning must be crazy there. Now, you have a few people there. I’m sure you’re social distancing. What else are you doing on-site to keep the staff safe?
Dan: On-site, a few different things. It’s something as basic as social distancing and removal of self-service from the cafeteria. That’s a big deal. You don’t think that’s a big deal and that also helps us being out here and that people aren’t going out to lunch and bringing back whatever, right? So that’s that’s one thing. But on a real qualitative level in terms of television production, we’ve eliminated positions in the control rooms for individual shows so that if there used to, let’s say, a dozen people or 10 people in a control room, there are now only three. And there’s another person we’ve actually managed to do some things that used to be done in the control room exclusively from people’s homes. We’ve managed to set up other positions around the newsroom so they don’t have to be locked in a control room. We’re also cleaning the control rooms between every shift. It’s funny, you see producers here walking around with tubes of wipes and gloves, and when they go in when they go in to sit at their desk in a control room, the three or four of them would still do it, they wipe everything down themselves because it’s high human turnover in there. So that situation, we’ve moved leaps and bounds there to where there’s not only social distancing. It used to be a control room is a newsroom squished into a tiny little compartment. That now has been loosened up to where we have just three or four people in there for each show. That’s been a big advantage for us.
The other issue, we have. Again, not being in the field helps. But we’ve managed to keep a lot of the essential personnel home, like segment producers and bookers. They can do their jobs out of their houses. Even writers can do their job out of their houses. So that’s fine. Even parts of our news desk have moved off a central hub to work remotely, and they’ve all been fairly effective. We haven’t seen anything that made us say, “Oh my God, we have to bring this back into the building right away.” We’re looking at our re-entry program and how we do that in waves and who’s essential and who can stay out a little bit longer, whatever those considerations are. There’s nothing where we say, “Here is a weak link we have in this remote work environment. We have to bring it back inside.” We really haven’t seen any weak links from the remote situation.
You live in a newsroom, you grow up in a newsroom. I’ve been in this room since 1987. I’m used to a boisterous, noisy – I like it – it’s a boisterous noisy experience. The gamut of emotions, there’s all those things when you go into a newsroom and there’s not a lot of that now. But you do make sure, like in my position, I make sure to go down to the newsroom everyday. I stop in in the morning when I come in, and then I go back down at least once or twice a day in addition to being connected to people, telephone, computer, whatever, but I go down and make sure I drop in on people around and just say, “Hey,” and check in on them because that’s crucial.
Jeffrey: A lot of changes, right? [crosstalk] right, so when you looked at CNBC before the coronavirus – BC – and then once we’re back and have a working vaccine – AC – whenever that’ll be, these adaptations that you’re making, what do you think? Will some of them be permanent changes? Are you finding it better, this distance, and people being able to work at home? What do you think life at CNBC will look like in this AC world?
Dan: You know, that’s interesting. We’re having that same conversation right now. We’ve had a conference call about this everyday. The senior management team here, we’ve had conference calls about this a couple times a week. I think the big thing you’re going to find, and I think this isn’t CNBC-specific, I think along all big newsrooms, is you’re going to see more people working remotely in shifts or rotating in and out – weeks where you’ll be in the newsroom, weeks where you’ll be home because I think social distancing is one of the real lessons here. I also think that hygiene, which has never been a hallmark of any newsroom [chuckle] will take some promise. But I do think that the open space office which was a newsroom before somebody invented the fancy term for that, that is going to have to be modified. Whether the cubicles are going to have to have walls, or there’s going to have to be more space between people. I think the control room situation again is one where we’re likely to see that actually until there’s a vax. I mean, look, there’s going to be a stage between now and a vaccine that we’re going to have to involve more people and bring more people back into the flow, right? And I think that’s going to be a situation where the the control rooms will still be socially distanced, and more will be done out of central or remote areas or sparsely populated areas where we’re able to trigger graphics, to run teleprompter, all the things that go into making a TV show, can be done in other compartments. So I think a lot of that’s going to be done.
The one thing that I hope doesn’t suffer is, I do hope we can get back to travel sooner. I don’t mean to rush it and I’m not saying to preamp testing, or I’m not talking about opening a massage parlor in Georgia, but I am thinking that there’s a lot of humanity going through wrenching changes in their financial lives and their personal lives. I think that those stories need to be told by a strong arbiter, and I think we’re it. And I would like to get to America, and I think I’ll correspondents would like to look business owners in the eye and tell their stories, tell the stories of executives who have been downsized; tell the story of airplane pilots who were furloughed. Whatever it might be, I think there are great stories out there. Or a market or companies that have CEOs who have figured out a strategy and kind of get the new world. I think we want to tell those stories a little more personally and a little more powerfully, and I hope that comes back in some sense, but I’m not going to rush it certainly. I do think that that storytelling and the resonance of the human experience, at least for us through the economic lens, is something that I hope we get back to because I do think the audience response to it. I think the audience needs to see it. And I think journalists as a people should tell those stories. They shouldn’t be left to random Twitter feeds and people’s personal Facebook pages.
Jeffrey: Right, I could tell you I’m ready for this for those stories. Speaking of viewership. So, me, viewer, I’m stuck at home. So I imagine TV ratings are uniformly up all over the place. When I last looked CNBC ratings, you’re up about 50% over three months ago. Phenomenal. But as a TV executive, you’re still competing for eyeballs versus other news networks, so that’s right now. Do you find these rating wars tougher during periods of extraordinary events like this? Do you not even look at that? Do you feel that rising of tide raises all ships? What are you concentrating on?
Dan: To take issue as one thing. I’m not competing for their eyeballs; I’m competing for their hearts and minds. But yes, in terms of ratings, we don’t get rated by Nielsen, but from press reports, you’ve seen out, all the news networks are doing well. So I think that’s an important thing. For us, I think the issue is that in this time of economic uncertainty, people who aren’t likely to tune into CNBC might come and visit us. They might come and tune into CNBC because they might have a 401k, or they might have a couple of stocks, or they might just want to know what’s going to happen to Delta Airlines. So they’re more likely to come to CNBC because we deliver that. I think it’s incumbent on us right now to plant the seeds for a relationship with the viewer who is not the traditional CNBC viewer or one part of our audience that might have gravitated maybe to social media, or might have gravitated to websites where they can have a live TV experience and feel bought into the personalities who deliver them the useful information. I think it’s our time to be infinitely useful and infinitely practical, but infinitely helpful to an audience.
When I look at it, I say, “Well this is great and the audience is big.” But there’s going to be an advertising equation here where a lot of the companies that advertise on TV, not just CNBC, are going to see their budget squeezed. We’re going to see cord-cutting which was a trend that didn’t need any help maybe accelerate if people can’t pay their cable bills. What’s going to happen here? So though there are variables out there that make this burst a double-edged sword because of why it happened, you don’t want captive viewers. You want to captivate them, but you don’t want them to have no choice, right? [chuckle] So the idea that we have them and it’s our chance to be, again, useful on a practical basis and and on an emotional basis is important. I think that’s kind of where we see it. This is not going to, I don’t think, change the current economies of TV news or lay out like, “Hey, when are no longer isolating or no longer distancing, it’s not like they’re going to come back and watch cable news for 12 hours a day anymore.” I don’t think that’s going to happen. But we just hope that when they do come back to a regular viewing pattern, we’ve we’ve infiltrated their patterns and we get our share of that.
There’s a number that came out a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal. I think it was in late March, that we had seen a 244% increase in daily time spent watching CNBC compared with last year. Now to me that’s a bigger number than an audience size in some cases because in that, I’m saying, “Okay, I’m engaging with you people.” They’re staying with us, they’re not coming with us for one block and just checking the ticker and leaving. They’re finding something that they like and they’re sticking around with us. And that came from an outlet called Samba TV, which measures TV engagement and viewership. To me that number is important, and the durability of the experience to me is really important.
Jeffrey: Well, you talked a little bit about coverage and given my focus on healthcare, do you think you know the coronavirus will result in any changes in how CNBC might think about healthcare coverage? Well as we’re talking – the audience can appreciate this – but as we’re talking, Meg Tirrell, who’s our healthcare reporter, is on the air now. I think it really is. I think for financial television, pharma, health care, those things kind of in waves. You’ll have big IPO booms in biotech and people that always captures the attention of the West Coast VC crowd and the individual investor crowd who like to you throw a Hail Mary every once in awhile when a cancer drug or a diabetes drug or anything that comes up, so there’s a wonderment to that coverage that goes in cycles. And then there’s big pharma and you track them because they’re like bellwethers for things. But I do think that it’s going to lead to a smarter, sharper coverage. We’re all now getting associated with the process of getting a drug approved. We are all getting associated with the process of the manufacturer and procurement of medical equipment, cross-border travel, wet markets. There’s a there’s a whole slew of things if you wanted to find health broadly and in an interesting way where there’s more ground for us to cover.
I think from a business point of view, I find health and science reporting fascinating. I think it’s under appreciated in the business bank because we tend to default to the market so often. But I do think that there’s renewed appetite for it beyond surface-level information and to real detail about how drugs work, how much they cost to develop, how much they’ll cost to manufacture. Vaccines are never a money-making proposition for pharma companies, but you would see companies talking about a vaccine for Corona and the stock will pop. Well, why? Because we’re in that point in time, it’s up to us to take people beyond that and really give them a better understanding of the broad landscape of it. I think we’re positioned to do that and I think it’s become part of the muscle memory. I think that will happen for investors as well as the journalists who cover the markets.
Jeffrey: Yes, you certainly have a more educated audience right now, being that–
Dan: That’s the one of the joys of CNBC is that you can assume some knowledge. You can’t assume the total vocabulary of the markets and contangos and and the VIX – you can’t always assume that, you have to step back and explain some of that. But you can assume that they are smart and really interested. So you don’t need to blow something up on screen for them to keep watching.
Jeffrey: As you mentioned before, you’ve been on a news desk since 1987 and you’ve been described as a visionary. Yes, you have [chuckle]
Dan: I don’t believe that but thanks. I don’t know any of my bosses would say that, but okay.
Jeffrey: [chuckle] So as you think about TV news in the next 20 years or 25 years, what changes might be in store? You’ve touched on a couple but what do you think of the future?
Dan: Look, I think the future is interested. I don’t have a greater sense of the future now as I had a few years ago when I was more on the digital side and kind of trying to bridge the gap between live TV news and the digital experience, which I did at Reuters for five or six years. But I do think that there’s a possible change to the economic model that surrounds
cable news and network news, let’s say. And I think that that it’s going to meet somewhere at a level of a little more authenticity in reporting. I think field reporting and good field reporting is going to be worth the price that we pay for it because it is more expensive than booking a Democrat, a Republican and sitting in a studio and having them scream at each other. Or in our case having a bull and bear debate, you know, Amazon, which I think is valuable, but I think that there’s another level of journalism that we can do around it.
I think the the the future, when I look at the future of TV, I don’t see TV as a standalone entity anymore. Just as when you look at digital now, digital is one of we have the now, officially, as of last week, the most visited business news website in the world rated by Comscore. Now, that’s a great achievement. There’s an economy around that the way there’s an economy around television. I think those economies may get a little closer together, and I think the idea is that if these things don’t work in tandem, if you’re not promoting on social broadcasting on linear, monetizing in both places on the way out, you’re missing an opportunity and you’re missing the future foundation of the business. So I think that there’s some level of that that is going to be the next turn because, again, as the economies change – whether it’s cord cutting on one side or further programmatic or for the dominance by Google and Facebook on the web advertising side – you’re going to have economies that need to depend on each other a little bit more. So I think on one sense from a financial sense, that’s how it changes. In terms of production, again, I think we become a more numerate society. The last recession created a whole generation of very numerate people. So I think TV is going to be a little more graphics-intensive, a little more explanatory and expository, and I think that’s valuable.
When I think about the the key things, those are some of them. And then I think the authenticity of the hosts, also, play well– our viewers are absurdly smart, so they call us out on social all the time like, “You’ve got this wrong. I can’t believe you said that.” Beyond– this is not the hate-Tweeting that the partisan guys. This is, like, they love us but they’re scolding us for not getting some earnings equation right or for not remembering when a stock had dropped 50%, which is all valuable. We take it. But we have an active and engaged audience, so I think the authenticity and the knowledge and the depth of the people you put on TV is going to have to go– I think it’s a for us it’s a high quality level, but I think overall it’s going to have to maintain a quality. The relationship that you that the audience has with the people bringing them the news on the screen is going to be even more important.
Jeffrey: So authenticity and an integrated multi-channel, multi-screen approach.
Dan: Yes. That’s that’s far better than I said it, see you maybe you’re the visionary [laughter].
Jeffrey: [laughter] I’m just listening to what you say, I’m a good translator. Dan, this has been great. I want to thank you so much for your time. We could actually talk for another half hour, so I hope to have you back at some point in the future. This is really helpful. Wonderful. Thank you.
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