Fair and Balanced … Portfolios

Who would watch a Fox News business channel?

Fox News’ plan for a business news network, reported Monday by the Wall Street Journal, may seem like something of a suicide mission. Two business news channels already exist: CNBC, whose audience is shrinking, and little-watched Bloomberg Television. A third all-business-news channel, CNNfn, closed last year after an undistinguished nine-year run.

A decade ago, CNBC and its competitors had two main things to recommend them. In that dark era—before BlackBerries and Wi-Fi—CNBC enabled pros and amateurs alike to get market news and stock quotes quickly. Viewers at home also liked the free stock tips from Wall Street analysts and mutual-fund managers. (Special bonus for both classes of viewers: hotties like Money Honey Maria Bartiromo reporting live from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.) But today, stock quotes and market commentary come through personal computers, cell phones, and a jillion other devices. And after the scandals of the late 1990s, viewers have come to realize that you get what you pay for when it comes to stock advice.

So, the audience for CNBC has essentially disappeared. As the Journal reported, according to Nielsen Media Research numbers, CNBC attracts an average of 153,000 viewers between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays—down 60 percent from its 2000 average. (That number may understate CNBC’s audience, since the network functions as a silent wallpaper on trading floors, in airports, bars, and bank branches—anywhere people with money tend to congregate.) At night, when the traders go home, CNBC is a veritable Sargasso Sea of television—dead calm.

Despite the huge drop in its audience, CNBC is essentially collecting monopoly rents. It may not have many viewers, but it’s the only store in town for advertisers trying to reach market-savvy customers. As the Journal noted, advertisers may be bridling at having to pay up to reach smaller audiences, and that may be Fox News’ market opportunity. Fox News creator Roger Ailes ran CNBC in its salad days, and he understands the economics of the business. Yes, CNNfn’s demise suggests that there isn’t enough room for another financial network. But it could just be that the failure of CNNfn was a symptom of CNN’s general malaise.

It’s an open question if Ailes can replicate his Fox News success in business news. Fox News Channel succeeded because it easily and smartly defined itself in opposition to what its core audience perceived to be bias on the part of the other networks. But nobody regards CNBC and Bloomberg TV the way Fox viewers regarded CNN and MSNBC. And CNBC has solid right-wing credentials. Mark Haines, the host of Squawk Box, routinely greets his colleagues at CNBC Europe by asking what’s going on in Socialist Land. CNBC’s idea of a leftist is a Wall Street Democrat like Roger Altman. And the network has given over an entire show to supply-sider Larry Kudlow. The gang at CNBC bears some resemblance to the House Republican caucus—an all-white, overwhelmingly male group in which centrists are branded as liberals and marginalized.

It may be possible for Fox to outflank CNBC on the right, but it’s not clear that would make for good financial TV. The simplistic dogma that suffuses the network’s current political/economic coverage—Republicans good, Democrats bad—might not work for 24/seven business news. Much of Fox’s current business coverage, dubbed “The Cost of Freedom,” oddly conflates stock market coverage with the war on terror. (James Wolcott noted that on a recent episode of the Fox business show Cashin’ In, one topic was: “The Prison at Guantanamo Bay: Good for the Stock Market?” Host Terry Keenan noted: “If we ‘cut and run’ from there, isn’t it all bets off for the market?”) Fox’s lead business anchor Neil Cavuto is a GOP donor, as well as an unctuous butt-kisser. The Journal pulled this representative quote from Fox host Stuart Varney: “The Democrats hate markets because they say they’re risky.” And the network’s history of taking stylebook directions from the White House doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Will we be treated to Fox anchors referring to Treasury debt as “ownership society assets”? Will the French CAC-40 index be known on Fox as the “Freedom CAC-40”? Will folks who buy foreign stocks be derided as unpatriotic?

Fox may be entering a crowded field, where the lead player is a formidable name brand that invented the genre, and the second-tier player is owned by a deep-pocketed company that doesn’t need to make a profit from it any time soon. Of course, that’s exactly the prospect that Fox News Channel faced when it debuted in 1996. I don’t know that I’d bet on a Fox business news channel. But media executives have learned the hard way not to sell Roger Ailes short.