By Brian Steinberg
In its short history, News Corp.’s Fox Business Network has assembled a roster of blue-chip anchors ranging from Stuart Varney and Neil Cavuto to, most recently, Lou Dobbs. What it hasn’t done yet is deliver on the initial expectation that it would become another Rupert Murdoch-powered dynamo on the level of sibling Fox News Channel.
Executives at FBN say they are pushing forward.
Fox Business has unveiled Nielsen ratings for broader consumption, a key piece of information that gives the network more legitimacy with marketers. "The challenge is to increase our distribution and increase our ratings," said Kevin Magee, exec VP, Fox Business. "We’re still the plucky little startup and we want to make sure that we keep going."
The media outlet’s progress–or lack thereof–places a spotlight on the question of how long a startup has to succeed. Launching a magazine or cable network once was viewed as a five-year process. Deteriorating business conditions have left media conglomerates with less patience. Yet they are all still working to turn even their tiniest operations into bigger forces. Under Comcast, for example, cable outlet Versus was never the best-known sports network, but now the company hopes to leverage it into something more commanding by using NBC’s sports broadcasts.
Launched in October 2007, after frenzied speculation, Fox Business Network may be saddled with the heavy weight of expectation. Fox News Channel, after all, was able to surpass the ratings of former front-runner CNN after less than five years — and this with the challenge of having to secure a similar level of distribution. Little more than three years after its debut, however, Fox Business remains a small player, though the network says it has made inroads against CNBC at certain times of the day since its launch. CNBC reached about 273,000 viewers between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. between March 28 and April 24, according to Nielsen. FBN, meanwhile, reached around 64,000 viewers between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. for the same time period.
There are some caveats, of course: CNBC finished 2010 with an estimated 98.2 million subscribers, according to SNL Kagan, while Fox Business had about 61.2 million. CNBC’s long-running "Squawk Box" airs against Fox Business’s morning broadcast of Don Imus’s radio program (which has had some ratings challenges as of late) in the earlier hours of the morning–perhaps the most important to business-news aficionados looking for information in advance of the opening of the market. A third business-news outlet, Bloomberg TV, is unrated.
Cable and satellite distributors place more value on CNBC at present; according to SNL Kagan, CNBC garners about 31¢ a subscriber in monthly fees from affiliates, while Fox Business commands about 12¢ and Bloomberg about 7¢.
Mr. Magee said Fox Business programs are winning more viewers. Indeed, the recent daytime figures show a 73% jump from the year-earlier period, when FBN reached about 37,000 total viewers. "We’ve got a murderer’s row lineup in prime time. The daytime is coming right along," he said.
Fox Business wants to use its Nielsen data to approach a broader set of advertisers, said John McCann, VP-ad sales, Fox Business. While the network currently gets business from financial advertisers, it wants to extend its consideration with marketers seeking homeowners and business travelers, he said.
Ad buyers suggest Fox Business may find it hard to play Pepsi to CNBC’s Coca-Cola. But they want to see Fox Business do better, if only because it helps advertisers to have more options to help them finagle a better price — particularly when the business-news channels are able to, in some cases, command higher-than-normal rates owing to the value of their high-income viewership.
"There are only so many places you can go to hit that C-level suite," said Guy Rancourt, VP-associate media director at Interpublic Group’s Hill Holliday, where client John Hancock Financial Services is a buyer of ad time on Fox Business, CNBC and Bloomberg. Fox Business is "making strides in the right direction," he said, though he noted it will not see instantaneous growth. "It’s not like they’re going to come out of the cage and dominate or get to 100 million homes that quickly. It’s hard to do these days."
At this stage of its existence, Fox Business should look to get on the media plans of advertisers who want to blanket the audience for business-news on TV, said Jason Kanefsky, exec VP-director of strategic investment at Havas’s MPG.
"CNBC is clearly the market leader, but in every case market leadership can be eroded over time, and it’s good for CNBC to have a competitor," Mr. Kanefsky said.
Other tactics for Fox Business may lie in the offing. While Fox Business and The Wall Street Journal are both owned by News Corp., the cable network is unable to run regularly scheduled programming making use of the Journal’s name due to a prior agreement established between CNBC and Dow Jones before Dow Jones became a News Corp. subsidiary. When the pact expires in 2012, CNBC will lose access to Journal and Dow Jones staffers, said Mr. Magee.