Media Brand

From CNBC to Sky, Comcast is the new powerhouse of global news media

By Ian Burrell | Columnist

November 22, 2018 | 9 min read

KC Sullivan’s sixth-floor London office affords him a view of St Paul’s Cathedral but what really excites him is an outlook for global news media which is suddenly alive with fresh opportunities.

The president and managing director of CNBC International sits at the heart of an invigorated Comcast empire that has made a bold statement of its worldwide ambitions with the $40bn (£30bn) purchase of Sky.

The breathtaking deal transforms the international media landscape and in doing so puts Comcast in an immensely powerful position in the news industry. Its inheritance of Sky News (and Sky Italia’s TG24 network) adds to a news family that includes NBC News, the MSNBC pay TV channel, and a 25% share in the revitalised France-based Euronews, which has the biggest TV news audience in continental Europe.

Ian Burrell

CNBC, which lays claim to being the world’s biggest business news network, is a pearl in this portfolio, and Sullivan is overseeing its expansion outside of the US. “We consider ourselves the rights holder to the world’s most powerful audience,” is his boast. Already in 410m homes worldwide, CNBC has recently opened a new service in Indonesia and a base in Dubai. Its London office houses studios that make up one of four broadcast hubs (alongside Singapore, Abu Dhabi and New York) and host the international output each morning between 6am-10am.

The big gamble on Sky by Comcast chief Brian Roberts has brought added confidence to CNBC, which already claims to be outperforming its business rivals The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and The Economist in reaching “affluent consumers” across Europe and Asia.

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“There is incredible excitement about having a brand like Sky as part of the portfolio and that Brian Roberts would make such a big move into the international space,” says Sullivan. “Across our international employee base there is a lot of pride in working for a company like Comcast that comes from this (deal). It’s going to be a player going forward and there’s confidence in the employees walking through the hallways, which is great.”

He expresses admiration for Sky News’s exclusive interviews last weekend with British prime minister Theresa May and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn over Brexit negotiations. “They do great journalism and we look at them with a lot of respect.” How Sky interacts with CNBC and the rest of the Comcast family is still being mapped out at the American conglomerate’s Philadelphia headquarters.

CNBC eyes Europe – and China

In the meantime, CNBC’s expansion continues. The network increased its European profile with a major presence this year at the World Economic Forum at Davos and at the Cannes Lions festival, where its anchor Karen Tso was filmed interviewing advertising guru Sir John Hegarty and other business luminaries while she drove a McLaren supercar down the Croisette.

McLaren’s long-running brand partnership with CNBC is symbolic of the network’s desire to serve an “influential, affluent audience”, to use a description that Sullivan frequently reiterates.

Tso is one of the lead presenters of Squawk Box Europe, the flagship show of CNBC’s London operation, which sets the scene for the day’s market opening of the London Stock Exchange. CNBC audiences, Sullivan says, “look to us to provide insights to what’s happening in the markets and how they can take that information and translate that into profits for their business and for their personal gain”.

Although CNBC has a reporter in Frankfurt, Sullivan says that CNBC will continue to see London as its European hub post-Brexit. “This has been our home for 25 years and I expect it will be for many more, it’s an important part of the financial footprint globally.”

CNBC will be 30 years old next year. Having started as a US cable news channel it is now very much a multi-platform operation, with 300 million accessing its content worldwide each month.

It recently built on its presence on Sirius radio in America to move into podcasting and Amazon Alexa’s voice-activated news. “That has been a way for us to go deeper on certain topics,” says Sullivan, who has worked for CNBC for nine years.

While many news operations have felt thwarted by changes to Facebook’s algorithms that have reduced the visibility of news content, CNBC says it has grown on the platform (where it has a following of 3 million, similar to that of rival business specialist Bloomberg) through its use of video. This is partly due to the popularity of its ‘Make It’ series on entrepreneurialism, which targets a broader “aspirational” audience than that which watches the TV channel.

These are often younger people who have yet to make it to the C-suite roles but have the ambition to do so. The strategy to grow the audience by reaching up and coming business leaders also informs CNBC’s advance into local language services such as in Japan (where it partners with FT-owner Nikkei) and Korea (where it partners with SBS). “Going into markets with local language partners allows us to reach that aspirational audience…the people who are trying to become those world leaders, business leaders,” says Sullivan, an American who splits his work time between London and Singapore.

China is probably CNBC’s biggest opportunity of all, despite Sullivan’s admission that “our ability to distribute into China is limited like all news providers”. The network, which has had a Beijing bureau since 2013, recently opened an office in Guangzhou. Next week it will host an East Tech West conference in nearby Nansha. “It’s an opportunity for us to be on the ground in China talking about a topic that’s of premium relevance to our audience,” he says, adding that “China and tech” are the two subjects that most fascinate CNBC’s international audience.

The recent trade war between China and the US might not be helpful to an organisation based in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, with ambitions to reach a larger Chinese business audience. But Sullivan says “we like to see ourselves as a truly global brand”, stressing that CNBC’s roots as an international operation are 25 years old.

Similarly, he claims that CNBC has been unaffected by Donald Trump’s war on the news media, even though Joe Scarborough, high-profile presenter with sister network MSNBC, has been involved in an ongoing public spat with the president. CNBC is “proudly unbiased”, he says, and sits in a “slightly different lane” from the general news networks. CNBC demonstrated its independence recently when its Squawk Box flagship show hosted business analysts suggesting that Comcast had paid over the odds in its acquisition of Sky.

Standing apart without an agenda

Unlike some other business news brands, notably The Economist with its outspoken support of classical liberal values and free trade, CNBC does not have an editorial stance. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t put the various parties in the arena to have the discussion… but it’s not about putting out an agenda,” Sullivan says.

While its focus on business might put it on a different course to the multitude of brands that now compete in the global news market (including state-funded operations from Russia and China), CNBC International’s schedule does include a number of high-profile NBC shows, including the long-running political programme Meet The Press (which debuted in 1959) and talk show Late Night with Seth Meyers.

It also hosts the kinds of sports most associated with an audience of business executives; golf, sailing, motorsport. A new show CNBC Sport, sponsored by McLaren, launched this year to focus on the business of sport. “People in business love the win-loss of business, similar to how people love the win-loss of sport and I think it’s scratching that itch,” says Sullivan, who formerly worked for General Electric at a time when it owned NBC Universal.

In addition to its many TV distribution deals, CNBC monetises its high-end audience across the gamut of advertising. Two years ago it created its 60-strong in-house commercial agency, Catalyst, focusing on long-term relationships with clients that offer consulting services and data analytics in addition to native advertising campaigns and sponsorship deals. Catalyst grew eight per cent last year in a fiercely competitive market.

Among the agency’s most successful deals was an editorial series sponsored by Credit Suisse called The Brave Ones, highlighting the business bravura of the likes of Richard Branson and Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma.

While Sullivan says CNBC International is operating in a “really crowded” market which is joined by “more and more competitors every day”, he argues that its mix of products and a TV heritage makes it different. “We are truly multi-platform; we do everything from TV to digital tech, social, events and experiences,” he says. “We are constantly looking for new ways to monetise the brand.”

From an organisation that claims to be “First In Business Worldwide”, it’s what you’d expect.

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

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