Apart from The People vs. O.J. Simpson and The Walking Dead, I don’t think I’m watching any contemporary shows these days… with one oddball exception: the shows that CNBC has been coming up with lately. The network has more or less invented a new TV genre, businesstainment, to fill its evening timeslots when the markets have closed and Jim Cramer is done yelling his stock tips.
It’s been a rough road for CNBC. All of its early efforts sank quickly into the murky depths of television oblivion, and you can only run so many repeats of Shark Tank before people stop watching. Money Talks (2013-2014) was a standout exception, a reality show following the lives of professional sports bettors in Las Vegas. I didn’t expect to like it, but its central figure, Steve Stevens, is too fascinating not to watch— a fast-talking pitchman who never stops selling his purported skills at picking winning football games. He’s a 21st Century Damon Runyon character.
The premise is that his boiler room cold-calling team ultimately lands a wealthy gambler who signs on, flies into Vegas, bets heavily on Stevens’ pick, sweats bullets in a luxury hotel suite while watching the game and hopefully wins (with half of the proceeds going to Stevens). I never care much whether the sucker (sorry, client) wins or loses. Just listening to Stevens’ breathless hustle is all the entertainment one could ask for. Unfortunately, Money Talks rolled snake-eyes as soon as his past indictment for wire fraud and subsequent jail time became known. In spite of a growing audience, CNBC abruptly dropped the show and scrubbed its website of any reference to it. (Complete episodes can be found on YouTube.) Ironically, the network’s near-nightly airings of scammer-centric American Greed continue.
The Profit (2013-present) has proven to be a home run for the network, and while recent episodes have been hit-or-miss, the first season was outstanding and I remain a big fan. Its basic format (wealthy angel investor tries to make small businesses more successful) has been borrowed for the new Billion Dollar Buyer, which looks good so far. Similarly, the formula behind Shark Tank (nervous entrepreneurs hope to wrangle an investment from wealthy backers) has been recycled into West Texas Investors Club (2015-present). In this case, the entrepreneurs are summoned to a dark barn, where a trio of grizzled, drawling and improbably wealthy investors grill them on the details of their businesses. The entrepreneurs look like they mainly just want to escape, and I can’t blame them.
I think my favorites on this network are a pair of shows which cleverly update the old Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (1984-1994) format. You may remember Lifestyles, or at least its host Robin Leach (and if you’re like me, you’re wondering why one of the most successful syndicated shows of all time has vanished, with little or nothing available on cable, YouTube or the collectors’ market). Anyway, Secret Lives of the Super Rich (2013-present) profiles the ultra-high-end houses, cars and trinkets that the very, very wealthy spend their money on. The show is diplomatic about whether buying that $200 million super-yacht makes you a master of the universe or a complete idiot; it simply shows you around and lets you make your own judgment. Admittedly, these mansions and sports cars are usually beautiful and highly impressive.
The show’s success led CNBC to present a me-too program called The Filthy Rich Guide (2014-present) which is roughly the same thing, just dumbed-down somewhat and suggesting an attitude of amused disapproval. Unlike Secret Lives, it uses a lot of stock footage with fast MTV-type editing, accompanied by narration provided by a handful of redundant on-screen commentators. They’re redundant mainly because the show already has a perfectly good host, Robert Torti, an actor who plays the role of spoiled billionaire beautifully. When you first meet him, his impeccably tailored suits, overly-moussed hair and hoity-toity speaking style are irritating. But that’s the joke, and you catch on soon enough. He brings a lot of panache to the role, and I wish there was more of him on the show.
Move over, Cramer. CNBC has a new king.