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The Uphill Battle at Fox Business Network


The economic crisis may give Murdoch's year-old business channel a lift in its battle with CNBC

After September 11, the combative patriotism of Fox News (NWS) anchors helped the network overtake CNN in the ratings in a matter of months. Now, as the economic crisis deepens, the year-old Fox Business Network hopes its raging populism and extended coverage will give the channel a chance to gain on its well-established, less pugnacious rival, CNBC.

When the Administration first proposed the $700 billion bailout, FBC scrapped its regular weekend schedule and put its anchors on to answer calls from anxious investors. With a deal imminent, Washington correspondent Peter Barnes went on air at midnight with a report that was simulcast on Fox News Channel. On that Monday, FBc placed ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal chiding CNBC for sticking to its normal weekend schedule, which includes infomercials. "We're dealing with the real issues that are hitting people at home, and they're selling girdles," says Kevin Magee, Fox News executive vice-president. Since then, Fox has run a banner on screen declaring: "We own this story." And it has kept up its weekend coverage. CNBC declined to comment.

Fox plans to attract people who don't normally watch business news. "If we just divide up CNBC's audience there won't be enough for either of us to survive," says Magee. FBN has introduced an onscreen "fact box" that regularly defines the more arcane financial terms for viewers. It is sending reporters back to their hometowns (from Waretown, N.J., to Ruidoso, N.M.) to interview folks about the local business climate. According to data obtained by BusinessWeek, on the day that the Dow fell 778 points, more than 100,000 people watched FBC's two prime-time shows, America's Nightly Scoreboard and The Dave Ramsey Show, which offers personal financial advice. That's more than four times the size of FBC's typical audience.

SKIMPY NUMBERS

FBC is also being given more prominence within owner Rupert Murdoch's vast news empire. FBC reporters have been appearing regularly on Fox News to explain the financial turmoil. When Alexis Glick, the morning anchor, broke the news that Citigroup (C) intended to challenge the deal between Wells Fargo (WFC) and Wachovia (WB), Dow Jones Newswires picked it up right away and credited Fox Business with the scoop.

Still, FBC has a long way to go before it's a serious threat to CNBC. It is available in only 42 million homes, compared with 95 million for CNBC. Even in the homes that can receive FBC, it is often found way up in the so-called digital tiers, where people don't tend to channel surf. BusinessWeek estimates that about 32,000 have been tuning in daily during the meltdown. CNBC's typical audience has been about 541,000, according to Nielsen Media Research. Neil Cavuto, who joined the fledgling Fox News in 1996 and today hosts shows on both channels, jokes that working for FBC is like being in the Witness Protection Program, much like Fox in the early days, he says.

The channel may lose $48.2 million this year and a total of $158.6 million by 2010, according to SNL Kagan analyst Derek Baine, but he predicts it could break even by 2011. If so, FBC will have achieved that success in four years. It took Fox News five years to break even.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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