Inside CNBC Prime, CNBC’s New Primetime Entertainment Block

By Alex Weprin 

The stars of CNBC Prime’s “Car Chasers”

Tonight at 9 PM, CNBC will launch its new primetime entertainment block, CNBC Prime. In a stark departure from CNBC’s daytime programming, Tuesday evenings will become dedicated to unscripted reality shows, albeit with a business twist.

“At first I looked at shows that I thought would be organic to CNBC, ‘could I do shows set in the Wall Street space?’ I instantly felt that it might be tough, because it isn’t that visual,” Jim Ackerman, senior VP of primetime alternative programming tells TVNewser. “I came across a pitch about these guys that are flipping cars, and I thought that what these guys do is very much akin to what a commodity broker does, but their commodity happens to be very visual, that commodity has a back-story, that commodity has an emotional impact on the people buying and selling it, and I thought, this could work for us.”

That show is “Car Chasers,” which will kick off the Prime block tonight alongside “Treasure Detectives.” CNBC plans to launch eight or nine series by the end of 2013. Still, regular CNBC or business news viewers may be caught off-guard that a network with such a lucrative dayside news schedule would branch out into entertainment.

“We had been building out vertically, business-related content into primetime for the last couple of years,” says Brian Steel, CNBC’s senior VP of public relations. “We have been successful with the long-form documentaries, and some of the out-of-house produced shows like “American Greed,” and candidly, we were coming off the sixth consecutive year of record operating profit, and we thought it was time to try something different, to try and broaden the audience that we already had.”

Last week CNBC celebrated the launch of CNBC Prime at a cocktail party at the Classic Car Club of Manhattan. Media buyers and advertisers sipped bourbon under the watchful headlights of a 1965 Shelby Cobra and a 2010 Maserati Gran Cabrio. On the wall a Jackson Pollock oil painting loomed over the crowd, while a Babe Ruth autographed baseball and Muhammad Ali-signed boxing gloves were flanked by intimidating security guards.

CNBC chairman Mark Hoffman told the crowd that for years the channel’s primetime schedule had been a “mishmosh, a land of misfit toys,” with talk shows hosted by John McEnroe alongside reruns of NBC programs. The goal with CNBC Prime is to create a bona fide brand, while still being true to the channel’s mission.

But what about news? CNBC is easily the biggest of the financial news channels, and news doesn’t always happen on a planned schedule.

“Business day is the mothership, so if there was an appropriately big story, we would certainly break into Prime programming,” Steel says.

Why would CNBC take the risk of alienating some core dayside viewers? To broaden out, of course. Financial news is one of the most niche of niche networks, while “quick transactional” and “mantiquing” shows like “Car Chasers” and “Treasure Detectives” can appeal to a wider crowd.

“CNBC during the day speaks to institutional investors, heavyweight players in the world of high finance, and certainly some of the numbers are kind of mind-boggling,” Ackerman says. “The numbers we play in at night are much more relatable, if the guys on the ‘Car Chasers’ turn a profit of $9,000, it is a great payday, but it is also much more relatable than Greek debt crisis, or what some hedge fund is doing on Wall Street.”

Broader shows have the added benefit of appealing to advertisers that normally don’t touch TV or financial news. Wealthy movers and shakers are a valuable demographic, but so are young men with disposable income. At the launch party, the pitch was clear: we will reach younger viewers that have money to spend, so spend money with us.

“Perhaps it was the whiskey, but my general impression was that people were genuinely excited in what we are doing,” Ackerman quipped.