CNBC's Cohen declares split

CNBC is having trouble shaking off its own economic hangover. Its bread-and-butter financial news has lost its luster, and, while the other cable news channels are building their audiences, CNBC is hemorrhaging viewers.

Amid the traumas, it came as little surprise last week when the channel lost Executive Vice President of Business News Bruno Cohen. Insiders believe, though, he may still have a future somewhere else at NBC.

A five-year CNBC veteran, Cohen is electing a contract option to take a four-month paid sabbatical. Executive Producer David Friend will direct the newsroom and its operations until Cohen's replacement is found.

Cohen, who was charged with CNBC's 5 a.m.-8 p.m. programming, is unlikely to return to the channel after his time off. But the break gives NBC brass a chance to evaluate their needs, perhaps installing Cohen to run an O&O station or in another management post.

His departure ends a power struggle at the top of CNBC's executive ranks between Cohen and President and CEO Pamela Thomas-Graham. Industry executives say Cohen, a holdover from the days when current CNBC International chief Bill Bolster ran the channel, and Thomas-Graham disagreed on the direction of CNBC.

"There was major tension between him and Pamela all along," said one insider.

Said a cable executive, "The only thing that is surprising is how long it took" for Cohen to leave.

Thomas-Graham, who took over in July 2001, is said to favor more-analytical coverage, while Cohen prefers what some have called play-by-play news, which covers the stock market more like sports.

For a time, the Cohen formula helped propel CNBC to the top, though helped by a rocketing stock market. In 2000, CNBC reigned as the highest-rated cable news channel. Now, much like the stock market, it's in the basement, trailing Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, and nearly even with Headline News (CNNfn doesn't release Nielsen ratings).

In July, CNBC averaged a 0.2 rating in prime time, down 50% from the year before, and a 0.2 in total day, off 33%, according to Nielsen data. So far, the third quarter looks slightly better, and CNBC consistently argues that its viewership is underreported because the channel is watched in business offices, which Nielsen doesn't measure.

Nonetheless, Fox News and CNN have garnered better ratings for business news sprinkled with general news. Fox's Your World With Neil Cavuto
is averaging a 0.7 so far this quarter, while CNN's Lou Dobbs Moneyline
is pulling in a 0.5 average.

Before joining CNBC in 1996, Cohen was vice president and news director for WNBC(TV) under then-General Manager Bolster. When Bolster jumped ship to run CNBC, Cohen soon followed. He continued to rise through CNBC's ranks—until Thomas-Graham got the nod to head the network in July 2001.

"Bruno is more experienced than Pamela and wanted that job very badly," said one executive familiar with the situation.

At the time, Thomas-Graham, a former McKinsey & Co. partner, was CNBC's president and COO. She previously headed CNBC's Internet operations.