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From tea boy to top dog: CNBC International president John Casey on Covid-19, Brexit and TV journalism diversity

Press Gazette

John Casey may have had 26 years of experience climbing from the “lowest rank” to the very top of business and financial news broadcaster CNBC International.

But, after being appointed president and managing director in June last year, it was still “a very, very steep learning curve” coping with the challenges thrown up by Covid-19.

As head of the US giant’s operations in Europe, the Middle East, Africa (EMEA) and the Asia Pacific region, Casey would in normal times be jetting across the world for meetings. Instead, based in locked-down London, he had to manage his new, geographically-scattered team from home. 

While most companies have been able to adjust to working-from-home rules, as a live TV operation, CNBC required “practitioners to be in the control room and in the studio” throughout the coronavirus crisis, says Casey.

“So back when I got this role, a large portion of my time was spent figuring that out and reimagining control rooms and studios and how we would execute on keeping the show on the road.” 

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‘You needed a seatbelt to get through 2020 if you’re an ad-dependent business’

In addition to these logistical challenges, CNBC International’s commercial operations endured a rough ride in 2020 because of Covid-19.

The broadcaster’s owner, media giant Comcast, does not break down financial results for individual brands like CNBC.  But, according to the company’s latest published figures, revenues at NBCUniversal’s Cable Networks division (which includes CNBC and several other channels) fell by 5.8% to $10.8bn in 2020.

CNBC International’s Casey says that advertising – on TV, online and through events – is the company’s biggest revenue stream (ahead of subscriptions, distribution and content partnerships with other media organisations), but also its “lumpiest” and “most volatile”. 

“It’s the one that’s the most responsive to economic conditions,” he says. “So you know that it’s the first to go in the tough times and it’s the first to return in the good times… You needed a seatbelt to get through 2020 if you’re an ad-dependent business.”

But he adds: “2020, while presenting obvious commercial challenges, was a good year for CNBC International. All of our business lines adapted and pivoted to respond to the external environment.

“Looking at 2021, Q1 is looking promising and my expectation is the business will respond to whatever is thrown at it.”

Casey’s next challenge: Brexit

CNBC’s global headquarters is in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Through its TV channels across the world and its websites and online portals, the business and financial news service claims to reach more than 355m people a month. Its non-US arm, CNBC International, has headquarters in London and Singapore with 250 editorial, technical operations and support staff.

CNBC International’s London base means that Brexit could prove to be an issue for Casey after Covid-19. What impact could it have?

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“The honest answer is we don’t know,” says Casey. “And until the vaccinations create enough air cover for economies to be opened up, and thus facilitate a return to normality in terms of travel, it will be difficult to give you an authentically genuine answer on the impact of Brexit on doing business.

“It is the case that it’s probably going to be better than the worst fears given what happened at the end of the year between the European Union and the government here in London.

“But I suspect it will be a little bit more difficult than it previously was. Because we were literally jumping on Eurostars and flights with very little notice to cover breaking stories or interview opportunities as a matter of daily course pre-pandemic.

“And there will be more restrictions, whether it be carnets for equipment or whether it be the stuff you would need to set up an event in a European country as a result of the changing status of the UK following Brexit. But it’s hard to say at this stage.”

How CNBC pitches interviews to high-profile CEOs

One of CNBC’s key strengths as a business news operation is its journalists’ ability to regularly secure interviews with high-profile chief executives and investors.

Whether it is Mark Zuckerberg, Sir Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington or Alibaba’s Jack Ma, the newsgroup regularly pulls in interviews with businesspeople who often prove elusive to rivals.

What is CNBC’s pitch to secure these interviews?

“We’re the number one player in our space on TV and online,” says Casey. “And we have the best business journalists in our space, across the US and internationally. And we articulate that to the various stakeholders – whether they be guests coming on-air or whoever they might be – very clearly so that they know if you’re in the business of appearing in front of the most affluent and influential audience, then CNBC is the single best place that you can do that.

“We reassure people about our credentials and our style, which is balanced, fair, actionable, unbiased. We don’t have a partisan view or position. We come at this from the vantage point of being fact-based, empirical – and the market will then determine if it’s a buy or a sell.

“So we’re honest brokers when it comes to our journalism and when it comes to the way we do business. And I think that audiences appreciate that because they know what they’re getting, which is a straightforward conversation.”

From tea boy to president

UK broadcasting appears to suffer from race and class diversity issues. A 2019 Ofcom report found that television workers are twice as likely to have attended a private school than the average member of the public. The same report found that “minority ethnic representation remains low at senior level” within broadcasters.

Casey, who is of mixed race because of his mother’s Caribbean descent, joined his company – then known as European Business News and owned by Dow Jones before a merger with CNBC’s European operations – aged 20 with some “very average” A-levels from Purley Sixth Form College and no university degree.

“I started off at the lowest rank that they had at the time,” he says. “It was called newsroom assistant. And that was probably too glorified a title based on what I actually did – which was print a lot of scripts, run around delivering said scripts to anchors, who were all rather intimidating. I became rather good at making coffee and tea.”

Did Casey, 46, always know he was destined for the top of CNBC, even as he was dashing across the office to deliver scripts to “intimidating” anchors?

“I definitely didn’t,” he says. “I was very transactional. I grew up in a household with a mum and dad who were from humble, working-class backgrounds, and taught me and my brothers that hard work is the key to everything. And I just focused very much on just figuring out what the job was, firstly, and then delivering it and over-delivering it, secondly.

“CNBC was always a meritocracy,” he adds. “Live TV is dependent on people who can do it – because if you can’t do it, the live TV falls off-air or you have a mistake on air.

“It intrinsically rewards delivery and performance, because you know about it if you make a mistake. I just worked really hard, I think.”

Casey, who attended comprehensive schools in the UK and a fee-paying international school in Hong Kong while his family lived there, says: “At CNBC International I’m extremely proud of the diversity and background of our teams, not just in London but around the world.

“Of course, both we and the industry can do more. That’s why a huge focus for me right now is to promote careers in media – especially to underrepresented groups within our industry.

“Outside of NBCUniversal I’m a trustee of the LSA academy in London, which promotes careers in TV and film; I speak regularly at City University about race and journalism; and I also work closely with the Amos Bursary, an important organisation which works with talented young men of African and Caribbean descent to ensure they have the opportunity to excel in education and beyond.” 

What guidance would he give to young people from diverse backgrounds hoping to break into broadcast journalism?

“My advice to anyone wanting to get into the industry, particularly business news, is to be inquisitive. Have a genuine interest in how governments, central banks and companies make decisions and their implications for individuals and businesses.

“I also think it’s important to be yourself, be proud of who you are and your background. Let your knowledge and skill do the talking for you.”

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