With 30 Million Subscribers, Fox Business Looks to Make Splash

Crowded: Pundits Wonder if Ailes' Programming Will Be Enough to Make the Financial Net Stand Out

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Ever since CNNfn went the way of the dodo bird in 2004, marketers wanting to hit financial muckety-mucks where they work have had basically two options: CNBC and Bloomberg, especially with the CNN mother ship devoting increasingly scant minutes to business coverage. You'd forgive them, then, if they reacted with something close to glee upon learning that News Corp. plans to enter the cable-business-news fray in the fourth quarter of 2007, likely in September.
Feeling confident: Paul Rittenberg, Fox News senior VP-advertising sales
Feeling confident: Paul Rittenberg, Fox News senior VP-advertising sales

Some pundits, however, believe that upper-crust financial-news junkies are well-served by the current channels. To a person they acknowledge the programming skill of Roger Ailes, chairman-CEO, Fox News, and chairman, Fox Television Stations, who will be overseeing the new entity. However, they wonder whether Fox Business Channel -- that's the working title -- can do for financial information what Fox News Channel did for mainstream news -- namely, spruce it up in a way that will bring new viewers to the genre.

Repeating Fox News' success
"Roger has proved he's a clever guy, and he seems to be in tune with the American audience," notes Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming, Katz Television Group, New York. "In a more niche arena, can they do what they did on Fox News? I wouldn't bet against them, but I don't know what they'll be able to do that's dramatically different."

John Spiropoulos, VP-group research director, MediaVest USA, New York, puts it more succinctly: "It's a crowded field for a very targeted audience segment."

News Corp., of course, is used to the doubters. Owing in part to a carriage dispute with Time Warner Cable, Fox News got off to a relatively slow start upon its Oct. 7, 1996, debut. The net launched in 17 million homes but didn't really gain traction until late 1998. The Fox business network, on the other hand, will boast 30 million subscribers at birth, courtesy of already-inked distribution agreements with Time Warner, Comcast, DirecTV and others.

Mum on the details
It's the 30 million figure that has Paul Rittenberg, Fox News senior VP-advertising sales, feeling confident as he prepares for a first round of presentations this month. Though he's mum on details of the channel's content, he believes a soon-to-be-unveiled mix of commentary and analysis will "draw a whole new audience to this kind of network."

"I don't think we'll be as market-centric as CNBC," Mr. Rittenberg says. He alternates between restrained braggadocio ("In numbers at least, we're going to be the biggest launch of a cable channel in quite some time.") and pithy jabs at the competition ("What we do can't be as boring as CNBC. Roger's constitutionally incapable of that.").

At the same time, Mr. Rittenberg understands the skepticism. "You look at the size of the audience on CNBC. Bloomberg's even smaller. So it's, 'Why split it up even more?'" he says. Fox's plan: to follow the lead of its older sibling and actively pursue viewers who traditionally haven't been enthusiastic watchers of business news.

Yeah, but do such viewers exist? Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Deutsch, New York, is willing to defer to Fox's belief that they do. "I don't think Fox is going to come into this game to be an also-ran player. Maybe they know something we all don't," he says.

Strong rivals
So what kind of a competitive environment will greet the Fox business offering come autumn? At CNBC and Bloomberg, business is strong. CNBC Senior VP-Business News Jonathan Wald says that, through mid-March, the network is enjoyed its best business-day ratings in four years, including a market-volatility-fueled 72% jump over the same period in 2006. Trevor Fellows, who oversees Bloomberg's global media advertising sales, notes that his network is available in 45 million households. If you count the Bloomberg TV content that runs on E!, it reaches more than 80 million households. Its website gets 300 million page views per month.

Comments from the media community echo those from within the networks. Deutsch's Mr. Gardiner lauds Bloomberg's "tight, tight focus" on investment information. Mr. Fellows says the channel hopes to be perceived as "the central nervous system of the financial data market." Katz's Mr. Carroll praises CNBC as "the major [business] player in daytime, and nobody else is really that close." Mr. Wald stresses, "When the market goes through turbulent times, [viewers'] first inclination is to turn to us."

Neither network claims to be that worried about Fox's arrival. "We've had the space to ourselves for some time. In our minds, we're only competing against what we did the day before," Mr. Wald says. Asked if there are enough eyeballs to go around, Bloomberg's Mr. Fellows responds, "Just as there are magazines from Smart Money to The Economist, there's room for a huge spectrum of financial coverage on TV as well."

Drawing wealthy viewers
One thing nobody doubts is that marketers, particularly those in the financial-services, luxury-goods and high-end auto sectors, will positively delight in having another cable option that appeals to wealthy viewers. While media buyers expect Fox to be aggressive in lining up advertisers, Mr. Fellows doesn't expect cable-business-news competition to spike suddenly. "We'll focus on getting our viewers what they want. In many ways, Fox's presence is a very nice endorsement of the importance and value of this audience," he says.

Mr. Rittenberg views things differently, promising marketers a raft of heretofore unavailable opportunities (in terms of different commercial lengths and metrics), as well as a chance to get in on the ground floor of something big. "We have the chance to use this as a lab to a certain extent," he says, extending an invitation to the media community: "If you have an idea that's not traditional in terms of length or placement, let's start it now."
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