Cable business channel CNBC has been getting bashed lately for having ratings lower than dot-com stock values, but that hasn't stopped it from doing some award-winning journalism. This past year CNBC's original documentary team won a Peabody Award for The Age of Wal-Mart, an insightful look at the retailing behemoth.
The same crew is back again on June 29 at 8 pm with The eBay Effect — Inside a Worldwide Obsession. Veteran CNBC correspondent David Faber looks at how the Internet auction company grew into a Wall Street juggernaut, a pop-culture touchstone and a means of livelihood for thousands.
Inside the company's network operations center, we learn how eBay's online traffic dips when American Idol is on. There's also a fascinating fly-on-the wall look at a meeting of the company's "Rules, Trust and Safety Team," which decides what kind of items should be sold on the site. ("I'm kind of uncomfortable with the notion of people renting out their kids on eBay," one member says. Selling breast milk also gets the thumbs-down.) The issue of fraud is also explored in depth, as the documentary follows three filmmakers who go to court when an eBay seller fails to deliver on a $1500 camera they bought.
The Biz recently caught up with Faber, who has been breaking business stories on CNBC for 12 years, to talk about the new documentary and the current climate at the channel.
TVGuide.com: Have TV cameras ever gotten so deep inside eBay headquarters before?
David Faber: Not to this extent. We definitely got access that hasn't been offered.
TVG: What made this the right time to get in there?
Faber: It's a fascinating company. It's coming up on its 10th anniversary. During that period of time [it was] the fastest-growing company in the history of U.S. business. When we started [filming], it was also the highest-valued Internet company, but that quickly changed earlier this year when it had that earnings miss and lost a lot of market [value] and we saw the rise of Google. But there is nothing really like it. No other company that has 500,000 people who don't work for it but without whom it would not exist. Essentially they work for eBay but aren't paid.
TVG: The hot story lately seems to be how eBay merchants are angry about increasing fees. Some people think it could lead to the company's undoing.
Faber: There are those who are succeeding on eBay, and they are not unhappy at all. Those having a tough time are very angry. Whether that will result in the company having a harder time is harder to say. The company will tell you, "Listen, stores fail every day, all over this country. Maybe the people who are closing their stores on eBay are closing because they are not very good merchants."
TVG: We aren't seeing much in-depth business reporting these days.
Faber: That's for sure. For a Wal-Mart or an eBay, I would talk about it in the morning and say, here are the earnings. You really don't get a sense of how the company works. But when you spend six months or a year on something, you definitely take away a lot more.
TVG: And viewers will have more than one chance to watch, right?
Faber: The Wal-Mart documentary has run about 27 times. Every time it runs, it gets record ratings, so they keep running it.
TVG: Is business news ever going to be sexy again, the way it was in the '90s? Faber: I'm not sure we'll ever see a period like that again in our lifetime, to the extent of the incredibly broad interest in the financial markets we saw.
TVG: You still break stories and do quality work, but the audience and the sizzle just aren't there. Does that bother you?
Faber: For me, as someone who has been here from almost the beginning, I've always tried to do quality work for the audience I'm aware of, which is also the audience I talk to, my sources. The bankers, the senior executives, the hedge-fund managers, all those types of people who are still out there. I've always sought to do things for them anyway. Yeah, you want as many people to watch as possible. But at the same time, we've had millions and millions of people who've seen the Wal-Mart documentary. I don't really think about [the ratings].
TVG: There are low ratings on CNBC, but the argument has been that a lot of people are watching at work and are not counted by Nielsen.
Faber: Yeah, and none of whom by the way would ever have a Nielsen meter in their home. As long as you're getting feedback to some extent, you know somebody is out there watching. You want to hear from the people you respect, and I've never felt that's changed in a big way.
TVG: How do people at CNBC feel about Fox News coming up with a competing business channel?
Faber: I'll be very curious how they decide to program it. I think competition is not a bad thing.