Appearing on BNN, and why live TV is always interesting

Yesterday, Friday December 17th, 2010,  I appeared on BNN’s Marketcall programme in their new studios at 299 Queen St W in downtown Toronto, where they had moved two weeks ago. BNN started as Report on Business TV (ROB-TV) in late 1999, backed by CTV and (after the takeover by BCE during their convergence phase) Bell Canada. Its first studio was in a converted warehouse on Church St, just around the corner from the old Maple Leaf Gardens, and had been thrown together in a few weeks when they won (somewhat to their surprise) the licence for a Canadian business TV channel, only 15 years after CNBC had started in the US. It was incredibly cramped and gloomy, the cameras were hand operated and pigeons nested in the roof, from where they would occasionally make life interesting for the presenters.

I was invited to appear on the first week of Marketcall, the phone-in programme which has the biggest audience of any of its shows, as one of the producers knew a colleague at Guardian Group of Funds, in February 2000, and Jim O’Connell, the knowledgeable and professional host, gently walked me through the details of which camera to look at and when the commercial breaks would occur. Having managed to look at the camera and finish with a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference when Nortel’s share price was falling (“Don’t panic”), I was invited back to become a regular guest, and had the pleasure of being the opening night guest on Marketcall Tonight with Ali Velshi (now starring at CNN) later in 2000. BNN moved to its new purpose-built studios on the top floor of a new building at King  & Bathurst, with automatic cameras, I would appear regularly on Marketcall, usually with Jim and Howard Green, and sometimes do an interview from the TSX broadcast centre to a remote camera with an earpiece hopefully plugged in, and anniversaries such as the 5 year birthday for Marketcall would  come and go. Jim O’Connell sadly passed away far too young, and we attended his funeral service, the make-up ladies would change, guest parking was removed as a cost cutting measure, and old friends from the business desks at other stations would appear as producers.

Through it all, the interest of the viewers in my commenst and those of other guests on individual stocks never flagged, and I have been approached on numerous occasions by people asking me what my 3 Top Picks were, or commenting on some of my recommendations, usually the ones that didn’t work out in the short term! The remarkable fact is that once you appear on TV, you are an “expert” and therefore presumed to know what you are talking about, until such time as you comprehensively destroy your credibility. I always chose the 3 top picks from the funds that were run by Guardian and latterly BMO, as I knew the managers, and regularly reviewed their selections with them, and the reasons why they were buying and selling, but that did not, of course, guarantee that the 3 stocks I’d chosen for that month’s appearance would go up over the next few months. In fact, I used to remark on air on a regular basis to Jim, Howard and MIchael Hainesworth that, much though I enjoyed their company and being on TV, if I could successfully pick stocks that went up in the short term, then I wouldn’t be on BNN, I would be enjoying my gains on my yacht in the south of France or Caribbean.

On Friday this week, I was making my second appearance at the new studios, BNN having moved to the building that houses CP24 , MuchMusic and other CTV specialty channels. Howard Green and I had settled in and were answering viewers’ questions, which the producers clear with you before putting them on air, as they don’t want managers admitting they don’t know anything about the stock the viewer is interested in; it’s boring TV and doesn’t help the credibility of the guests, who, after all, can’t be expected to know details on every stock in Canada, let alone the US. Suddenly the overhead lights went out, fortunately just as we were going to commercial break. Howard alerted the producers and technicians hurriedly ran up with smaller lights on stands, which they wired up rapidly. The overhead lights came back, Howard remarked “Well, that looks okay” and they promptly went out again. We spent the rest of the half hour having the producers put stock price charts up on screen when the lights went out, which left Howard and myself sitting in virtual darkness, until the techies finally got the smaller lights working consistently.

Howard is a complete professional and handled the situation admirably, while letting the viewers know that there were technical issues. We finished the show, and the senior management from BNN appeared to thank Howard and I for carrying off the show; Howard said it was lucky I was on, as an experienced guest, as someone new would have found it pretty distracting. It felt like disco TV, as one producer remarked, as the lights kept flashing away! That’s why it’s always interesting doing live TV; you never know what might happen and sometimes, everything does. Incidentally, my 3 top picks were Cameco (CCO-T), the uranium producer, Genworth MIC (MIC-T), the mortgage insurer and ICICI Bank of India (IBN-N), the second largest Indian bank.

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