The African queen: Erin Burnett
tour needs more than an hour

          Posted: Thursday, June 11, 2009

Erin Burnett's "Dollars & Danger: Africa, the Final Investing Frontier" is way too short to do the subject any justice.

Most CNBC original-programming documentaries are one hour long, and probably with good reason, that there is a limit to how much the typical viewer is willing to watch, even if the subject matter is compelling.

To condense a large continent like Africa into about 50 minutes of business analysis is not an "unprecedented look," as Burnett calls it, but a seriously abridged one. It has the appearance of a documentary created from a series of mostly unrelated news reports and visits to the continent. CNBC says Burnett "spent a year" on the production.

Bouncing above and below the Sahara, Burnett and her fairly small team (according to the credits) do succeed at putting a lot of diverse faces on the screen, each with something interesting to say. But these are either skilled entrepreneurs or native analysts who fail to give much perspective from the ground up. Despite Burnett's many references to corruption, there are few if any gripes from angry citizens (although there is stock footage of riot-control situations and police busts). And she gives no screen time to someone like, say, Tim Seymour, an exceptional international stock analyst on CNBC's "Fast Money" who is impartial and adept at summarizing the investing potential and drawbacks of many African nations.

The negative headwinds on African growth are rarely shown but only mentioned by Burnett. "Fewer than 20% of roads are paved in Africa," she said, and Liberia, for example, has 85% unemployment (that's correct, 85%). There are a couple of very brief images showing Congo violence and possible children working in diamond excavation.

But the guests tend to view the continent as a gold mine.

Quintin Primo III, a wealthy American who runs Capri Capital, says of Nigeria, "A typical equity investment in a real estate project here would produce returns of 40 to 50%."

Oando oil magnate Wale Tinubu says investing is "very tough" in Nigeria, but "returns are incredible." Burnett noted much later he traveled to this interview with heavy security in an SUV. Most interesting about this interview is the amount of security at this gas station, in both uniforms and suits, directing drivers around the pumps.

Nahel Elarbash, a Libyan who spent 25 years in Canada and Europe, returned to Tripoli to be a stockbroker. "You can make big money," he said.

Perhaps the most interesting element was not about Africa — but China. Burnett spends a decent chunk of time comparing Chinese investment in the continent with American interests.

Happily for the U.S., "We heard everywhere in Africa — people prefer America over China," Burnett says. She points to communities such as in South Africa where "there are Chinese people everywhere." But the big distinction between the foreign investors is that everyone seems to agree that China is shipping its own people to Africa to do the work, whereas American firms such as Freeport McMoran are hiring Africans and creating more local opportunity. (Although, it is worth noting that there are local tradeoffs from China as well.)

Burnett does look great. She has a very natural, pleasant appearance. Her shortcoming as a TV presence is a lack of silky-smooth body language, something possessed very impressively by her colleague Maria Bartiromo. As an anchor, Burnett tends to hunch and slump at awkward angles. On location here, she talks with her hands, rigidly in unison, in almost every segment. Some CNBC correspondents like Mike Hegedus pull it off in a quirky manner, but Burnett, while appearing to be relaxed, needs to smooth out the gestures.

Her producer is Lacy O'Toole, who once worked at Leerink Swann and is a veteran of several years at CNBC. Photographer/field producer Joe DeWitt has experience in international productions and is known on the Web for daring Mike Hegedus to ride a pig. An associate producer, Mary Catherine Wellons, has also worked on David Faber's impressive two-hour international feature, "House of Cards."

One graphic addition that would help is a permanent little map of Africa in the bottom of the screen that highlights whichever nation Burnett is talking about at the time. It's often a guess.

This production could be more effective in the travelogue department. Burnett might not want to admit it, but it's likely that more people will want to see this production because they want to visit Africa, not invest there, and would like to know where the more exciting, booming and safest hotspots are.

Burnett and her team deliver impressive photographic images from atypical African locations. And the soundbites are frequent and interesting. It will air for a year or more on weekends and holidays. But at just an hour, "Dollars & Danger" does little more than suggest only the true insiders really know what they're doing here, and this "final investing frontier" is best left to them.

"Dollars & Danger: Africa, the Final Investing Frontier"

Featuring Richard Anderson, Quintin Primo III, Bob Johnson, Barack Obama, Wale Tinubu, Abuzed Dorda, Chen Deming, Deborah Brautigam, Geoffrey Kent, Richard Adkerson, Moises Katumbi, Jules Mbangu, Dodo Nduw, Amr Al Dabbagh, Angelina Jolie, Bono, Oprah Winfrey, Dambisa Moyo, Sandra Lawson, Ayodeji Megope, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Mark Hardin, Obinna Ekezie, Nahel Elarbash, Adenike Ogunlesi, Sol Kerzner, Peter Zuk, John Dionisio, Rotimi Oyekan, Moammar Gadhafi, Jacob Zuma, Jacko Maree

Anchor & executive producer: Erin Burnett
Producer: Lacy O'Toole
Photographer & field producer: Joseph DeWitt
Associate producers: Robert Hand, Mary Catherine Wellons
Editors: Candice Tahi, Robert Simons
Lead designer/animator: Virginia Acker Davies
Designer/animator: Brian Reilly
Senior animator: John Rehm
Art director: Dan Dutches
Managing editor: Tyler Mathisen

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