Current Commentary

Coming Next


TV Series Theory

LA in the 1970s:

Experimental Finance


Part I: The Long Goodbye

Comes of Age





March 11, 2013


Mutual Funds
Risk Management
Experimental Finance
Online Articles
Books and Articles
Finance Notes
Rigged Online
About Us
Contact Info



Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
March 8, 2010

HDTV had been a long time in coming, and for CNBC it had been even longer. CNBC came relatively late to HDTV. I had vague notions that the HD version of CNBC existed a year or two ago, but there was no sign of it from my cable provider, Time-Warner, who owns a CNBC competitor, the vacuous CNN. None of the promotional literature that I got on a regular basis from DirecTV, DISH, and FIOS even mentioned an HD version for CNBC. I travel a fair bit, however, and for the past few years CNBC was virtually the only thing I watched on TV while traveling as the Internet provided a better source of both information and entertainment. It seems that HDTVs have become ubiquitous at the hotels where I stay, even the downscale ones, but most of the channels that hotels provide are not just low-def, but fuzzy low-def at that.

This past December I found myself for a night in the heart of TV land—Burbank, California. Not beautiful downtown Burbank, but in big-box-mall-land Burbank by the airport. Arriving on a late flight from the East Coast, I figured I'd bed down locally before heading out to the mean streets of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, where carjackings and other acts of ultraviolence were invented. After several minutes spent convincing the front desk clerk at the Burbank Airport Courtyard by Marriott that professors at state universities were indeed state government employees, I retired to my room, which faced a parking lot and not the mythical "courtyard." At some point during the evening, I flipped on the 32-inch HDTV and there it was, the elusive white whale of HDTV. Not just CNBC HD, but CNBC HD+. It was better than I had ever imagined.

I figured that when CNBC went HD, that all that it would mean is that the facial blemishes of the guest talking heads, not a bunch renowned for their looks, would be all the more noticeable. Without plastic surgery, I'd never get on CNBC again. But CNBC did the unexpected. Bill Gross is still the same size and remains tastefully blurred, but all the additional wide-screen real estate is given to an eternally flipping array of market quotes and charts. Many of them are pointlessly detailed, but within a minute of less one can get a good sense of what the financial markets are doing. Cool.

Once I learned of the existence of CNBC HD+, I would occasionally flip through the local Time-Warner listings in search of it. As a former GE guy who visited CNBC's old studios in Fort Lee, NJ in an official capacity two or three times, I knew that Burbank was an NBC town and that just because Burbank had CNBC HD+, it said nothing about when (if ever) the Albany suburbs where I normally bed down would get it. Then, late in January, without notice or fanfare, I found CNBC HD+ hidden on channel 1749 amid a chunk of HD news channels. With the aid of a handy Monoprice HDMI splitter and my secondary Dell 24-inch monitor that just happened to have an HDMI input, my peripheral vision can now absorb the market while I am doing any number of other things on my main megamonitor. Building on my misspent youth of doing homework while watching television, talking on the phone, etc., I can now listen to XM radio (First Wave at the moment), watch global markets on CNBC, munch down, and have several browser windows, e-mail, etc., open simultaneously. How fortunate I am that ADHD was not invented when I was in school and in someone my age it is simply extreme multitasking.

It was toward the end of that misspent youth, however, that the television I watched while I did my college "homework" was KWHY, the first financial television broadcaster. KWHY was a UHF television station, channel 22 to be exact, back in the days before cable. Receiving KWHY was no easy matter because the stations tend to have low power and their ultra-high-frequency signals propagate poorly. I could receive KWHY only because I had literal line-of-sight to the station's transmitting antenna on Mount Wilson seven miles from my room at the corner of South Mentor Avenue and Del Mar Boulevard in Pasadena, two cities down the San Gabriel Valley from Burbank. On the rare smogless days of the early 1970s, I could, indeed, see Mount Wilson out my window.

I watched KWHY on Walter, which was the name of my roommate's 12-inch b&w television. It was named after Walter Cronkite, whom we watched most days with religious devotion. Walter-like TVs were all the rage back then; at $79 or so a pop they were as cheap as televisions got. In inflation-adjusted terms, my 24-inch Dell monitor with fake 32-bit color and true 1920x1080 resolution costs considerably less than Walter and does reasonable justice to an HDTV signal.

KWHY began broadcasting financial news during market hours in 1968. Its programming at other times was the highly bizarre stuff that was typical of UHF broadcasters in pre-cable days. I watched the financial programming on KWHY from 1973 through 1975, starting late in my sophomore year of college through my graduation.

There were no femme fatale broadcasters nicknamed after ZZ Top songs back then. The main financial newsreader was a nerdy-looking guy with glasses that had thick black rims. Technical analysis was big on KWHY. The dean of the technicians was Gene Morgan, who had a show called "Charting the Market." While CNBC tries to give the impression of being respectable, KWHY was wall-to-wall, low-budget snake oil.

CNBC HD+ may be chock-full-of-information, but its roots in KWHY remain obvious. Dual tickers graced the bottom of KWHY, just as they do on CNBC HD+. As I recall, the top ticker was the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), and the bottom ticker was the American Stock Exchange (Amex). At the time, NASDAQ was in its infancy and wholly disreputable, while Amex was somewhat less disreputable. Both tickers were delayed 15 minutes, something CNBC did as well until just a few years ago.

The amazing thing about KWHY was that every single NYSE and Amex transaction was displayed on the dual tickers. When trading volume was high, selective information, like the size of the trade, would be dropped from the ticker quote. Nonetheless, every trade appeared on the screen. With total daily volume on the NYSE running a mere few million shares a day, such completeness was easily achieved. Even such minimal trading by current standards, however, was high enough to require that the markets close on Wednesdays for much of 1968 to allow the back offices time to catch up.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, the NYSE advancing and declining issues, and the tick indicator of NYSE stocks trading on upticks minus those trading on downticks appeared on mechanical tote boards behind the main newsreader. Other numbers may also have been displayed, but I have long forgotten what those were. The tote boards updated every five minutes and made loud clicks as the new numbers rotated into position. Computer graphics were in their infancy back then, so all the whiz-bang displays used by CNBC (regular or HD+) would not make it onto television for another decade.

If things got exciting on KWHY, it was easy enough for me to go see the markets in real-time. That was because I lived less than 200 yards from the main Pasadena office of Merrill Lynch, where I had a broker and a brokerage account. The Merrill office had beautiful and mesmerizing Trans-Lux tickers, sexy quote terminals, and paper-roll newswire machines. Several rows of comfy theatre seats faced the tickers.

I was the youngest Merrill habitué by several decades. I had hung around brokerage offices from the age of 11 and worked on Wall Street (deep in the back office) starting at 17, so I knew how to behave. Even though I looked a look more like Bob Dylan than a young J. Pierpont Morgan, the very conservative Pasadena brokerage crowd appeared to tolerate me. More details of my exciting Pasadena life, which did not include a lot of sleep, will have to wait for some other day.

Next time, roughly corresponding to Apple's introduction of the iPad, I will rail against the state of tablet computing.

Copyright 2010 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to