The bear market overwhelming the financial sector — roiled by the economic crisis of the past few weeks — couldn't be happening at a better time for the Fox Business Network.
On the anniversary of its Oct. 15, 2007 launch, the network remains bullish about its prospects in providing financial news to both the Wall Street and Main Street sets, and closing the gap on sector leader CNBC.
The financial upstart has built on an initial base of 30 million homes (the largest launch in cable history) and will count some 43 million subscribers by the end of October. FBN recently signed deals with U.S. Cable and Insight Communications, which next month will begin making FBN available in standard-definition in all of its markets, including Columbus, Ohio, and Louisville, Ky., and its HD feed in many of them, according to Melani Griffith, senior vice president of programming and video services at Insight. The rollouts are expected to be completed by year-end.
In addition to rollouts with its affiliate-launch partners, FBN has gained “millions of homes” from the National Cable Television Cooperative, according to Fox senior vice president of affiliate relations Tim Carry.
Thanks to the fierce resolve of Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, few at Fox are under the impression that success will come quickly or easily. Fox News executive vice president Kevin Magee noted that it took sister service Fox News Channel five years to displace CNN at the top of the cable-news ratings charts. “Then, people said it was unbelievable that it happened so quickly,” he said last Tuesday during an interview in his office, where FBN and CNBC aired side by side.
“Eighty percent of the time I like what I see there,” pointing at the upstart, “better than that one.”
Others might disagree. Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the news programs and networks through the Tyndall Report, said that now-defunct CNNfn also focused more on consumer issues than high finance, and that CNBC would not likely be caught by surprise as CNN was with FNC..
“I don't think [FBN] has made much of an impression,” he said. Tyndall was critical of FBN's efforts to make itself more of a fixture on Main Street, saying there had been only “little crossover” by FBN personalities onto other news outlets during the recent financial crisis.
Au contraire, say the folks at Fox. Alexis Glick appeared on ABC's The View and 20/20 — where Happy Hour's Cody Willard was scheduled to appear on Oct. 10 — and on CBS's The Early Show. Liz Claman has also appeared on the CBS program.
Those personalities and other talent, including Neil Cavuto,senior vice president and managing editor business news for Fox News Channel, as well as FBN contributors Eric Bolling and Charles Payne, have appeared on radio shows, and have significantly increased their presence on Fox broadcast-affiliate newscasts during the crisis.
There have also been FBN simulcasts on Fox News. Glick and Dave Asman have hosted Fox News at 5 p.m. during America's Election Headquarters, while talent from Jenna Lee to Bolling and Brian Sullivan have appeared on FNC.
FBN will also look to build brand and anchor awareness via the multipart series Opportunity in America, beginning Oct. 17. On-air talent will bring viewers to their hometowns and see how they are holding up during the downturn. Claman's return to Beverly Hills, Calif., is scheduled to air first.
The network's reporting mission is geared toward Main Street. Cavuto said FBN is succeeding, judging by anecdotal evidence from e-mail messages, phone calls, passers by and response to call-in shows. He said there was also positive viewer reaction to the network when it aired on-site at the Democratic and Republican political conventions.
Tyndall did credit FBN for building awareness through its weekend coverage during the early stage of the crisis, while CNBC remained in infomercials. Added Magee: “That first weekend (Sept. 27 to 28), [CNBC] really did a great disservice to their audience. While we were reporting on lawmakers talking about the recovery plan, they were in an infomercial about girdles.”
Already, Fox has taken some public swings at its bigger competitor. FBN on Sept. 30 placed ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal smacking CNBC for sticking to its normal weekend schedule and trotting out the tagline, “We own this story.”
Then, last Friday, FBN ran ads in those publications, promos on its air, as well as spots on CNBC, via local avails in key Time Warner Cable and Comcast markets, with a headline asking “Can You Afford To Watch CNBC?” From there, it excerpts various quotes and predictions from Mad Money host Jim Cramer, including lines from his Oct. 6 appearance on NBC's Today show, saying, “Whatever money you may need for the next five years, please take it out of the stock market right now, this week.”
CNBC officials declined to comment for this story.
For its part, the financial-news sector leader is having a strong year by many measures.
CNBC is expected to generate almost $628 million in affiliate and advertising revenue, according to SNL Kagan estimates, with cash flow margin at 56%. Sources indicate the network is on pace for record profits in 2008. On the ratings side, 2008 has been CNBC's best year in many moons. The network recorded its most its most-viewed day, September and third quarter ever with total viewers during its business-day programming.
On Sept. 29, the day the Dow Jones Industrial average lost 777 points, CNBC set its all-time record with total viewers, with 726,000 during its 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. business day. It posted a 46% rise to 373,000 from September 2007's average, which was the network's best month with the daypart since March 2001. The first week of October was CNBC's best-ever with 541,000 business-day watchers.
Those figures dwarf those for FBN.
Data obtained by Multichannel News, though, shows that FBN's Nielsens have been rising during the financial crisis. In the most recent full week from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, FBN averaged 32,000 viewers during its business-day period of 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. In primetime, it averaged 57,000 that week.
By way of comparison, Fox News averaged 20,000 and 30,000 viewers in total day and primetime, respectively, during October 1997, its first-year anniversary month.
For all of September, the service had 13,000 business-day watchers on average and 26,000 in primetime. From when the crisis first erupted on Sept. 15 through Oct. 7, FBN's business-day period averaged 24,000 and 42,000 in primetime. Most of FBN's top 10 most-watched periods — led by 124,000 from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sept. 29 and 104,000 in the earlier hour that night — have occurred during these recent tumultuous weeks.
FBN said the network is not a full-service Nielsen client and not publicly rated at this time. It was unclear when that transition would be made.
CNBC's established position and coverage aside, FBN's Nielsen shortfalls can be attributed to various other factors: its fledgling status, a more than 50 million-home disparity in subscribers — CNBC has 95 million subscribers — and its positioning largely on digital cable.
Indeed, outside of its expanded-basic positioning on Time Warner Cable in Manhattan, FBN resides on digital tiers, making it harder to find viewers and generate ratings points.
“I think what we are clearly seeing is people finding us and liking us,” said Cavuto. “And let's face it: We're a tough find on a lot of digital cable systems. We're way up there on the channel spectrum.”
Carry said some steps will be taken next year to help lift the profile of FBN, which he said is in “a delta between analog and digital” and at a disadvantage to CNBC.
“The network is a year old and we have great distribution, but our job next year will be to get more people to find it.”
To that end, Carry said the plan is to complement a reprise of the Fox & Friends promotional program that Fox News Channel ran in 2006 and 2007 next year, with an FBN initiative aimed at driving tune-in for the network. The FBN program will also be “a revenue generator for our affiliates. There has been a good response on a local ad sales level” for insertion of the network.
He’s also very confident that FBN more than holds its own with CNBC relative to talent and content, when consumers see it in the high-definition space. “We’re different and we look better,” he averred.
Insight’s Griffith said FBN’s HD position is impressive. “FBN winged-HD screen look is good and provides viewers with additional information,” she said. “FBN is 100% true HD and we appreciate that it’s difficult to do news in HD.”
Griffith noted that Insight, which conducts monthly polling from its various districts, tabulating call-center and email, has found that FBN has been one of the most requested channels since its launch. She added that Dave Ramsey, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show personality, who offers financial advice on the network during primetime, has a strong following in Louisville.
“Dave Ramsey is hot in Louisville,” she said. “I think viewers are going to be excited.”
Louisville might not be the only new market that will open up to Ramsey and rest of FBN’s lineup in the near future.
Sources close to negotiations indicate that FBN is closing in on a deal with one of three main holdouts: Dish Network, Cablevision and Cox.
Meanwhile, Magee says FBN will continue to pursue viewers, CNBC and profitability, which is not expected to come until 2011, like Aesop’s shelled character – along a steady course and pace.
“We want to make the shows so good that cable operators can’t afford not to have FBN on,” he said, “just like they can’t afford not to have Fox News Channel.”