CNBC at 20: The pulse of the Street, but for how long?

CNBC has turned 20, and we would be remiss if we didn't take a moment to mark the occasion by evaluating the network's impact on the financial world.

First, a little surprise: The primary strength of CNBC is, arguably, not what you may think. Most people would probably cite CNBC's ability to rapidly convey financial data or educate the public or even entertain us with stock picking shows like "Mad Money" and "Fast Money" as its greatest features.

Well, my view is that CNBC (GE) is doing reasonably well at those things, but the network's most pertinent role is more basic: gauging and broadcasting the pulse of Wall Street at any given time. It has become the nation's financial EKG machine. After watching CNBC for a few minutes (with commercials, sometimes it can take up to 12), one can detect Wall Street's mood, and that important trading (and, to a lesser extent, investing) variable known as "market psychology."

Viewer Beware

It's a point Jon Stewart largely missed in his highly publicized "Daily Show" face-off with Jim Cramer. CNBC does offer substantive reports on companies, sectors, markets, economics and business trends, but particularly regarding stocks to buy and sell, CNBC should never be the only source you rely on before making a financial decision, most financial advisers would agree, and no doubt so would the network. (In fact, CNBC's investing disclaimers for its stock pick shows recommend that viewers do just that: get additional investing advice before making a decision.)

One of the biggest criticisms of CNBC concerns "boosterism." Critics argue that the network has been part of the Wall Street hype machine that failed to effectively alert investors to both the dot-com bubble in the 1990s and this decade's housing bubble and resulting financial crisis. Other critics say the network publicizes only a narrow range of economic views, views that are decidedly pro-corporate capitalism.

So what does the future hold for the birthday network? To be sure, competition from Fox Business New (NWS) and Bloomberg News have forced CNBC to tweak its format, but neither is likely to mount a serious threat to CNBC's lead.

But what will likely represent a threat is the same alternative that represents a threat to newspapers, magazines, and, to a lesser extent, television: the internet. Along with increased channel availability via digital cable TV, the internet will continue to drive both the fragmentation and erosion of CNBC's audience.

A critical mass of adults ages 26-45 watch CNBC now in a traditional cable TV format. But there's no guarantee that this will be the case in 10 years, perhaps not even in five years. How effectively CNBC develops content for its online and mobile-device audience and integrates it into its pulse-taking role will say a lot about what CNBC's status will be in the decade ahead, or even whether a channel like CNBC on cable TV will continue to exist.

Financial Editor Joseph Lazzaro is based in New York.

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