On January 4, Wall Street suffered big losses. On my TV, several non-celebrities had a lengthy and lively discussion about what, if anything, the Federal Reserve should do to fix the U.S. economy. The panel was critical of the financial community—which has been badgering the central bank to cut interest rates—for its narrow view of Fed policy. “What’s good for Wall Street isn’t necessarily good for everyone else,” one guest said, and everyone agreed.
No, it wasn’t CNBC, the General Electric-owned financial network, which provides serious economic information and analysis to the business class but rarely considers the economic interests of Americans outside its target demographic (that is, rich people working hard to get richer). If you saw this particular discussion, you were watching Fox Business Network. You’d also have been lonely: after nearly three months on the air, despite penetration into 30 million homes and extensive advertising and publicity, only about 6,300 people were watching during the daytime in late December, according to preliminary Nielsen estimates, which were leaked to the media in early January. About 283,000 were watching CNBC at that time.
When Rupert Murdoch launched Fox Business Network last October, many serious financial journalists felt queasy and apprehensive. With its pantheon of nubile babe reporters, FBN feels a little like a blowout party for American capitalism: imagine a Hugh Hefner-style gala at Rupert Murdoch’s pad. Its cheery blend of stock tips and celebrity gossip seemed to auger the tabloidization and dumbing-down of financial news. Many worried that the competition from Fox would destroy CNBC. Others feared FBN was a right-wing conspiracy, concerns not allayed by promises from network officials that theirs would be the “pro-business” network. (As if CNBC were “anti-business.”)
It may be too soon for Fox’s detractors to gloat about the ratings, as therapeutically satisfying for them as it is to see a Murdoch property attain a market share comparable to a personal blog. Low ratings for a new cable network are almost inevitable; building viewership takes time. Brad Adgate, senior vice president at Horizon Media, a marketing firm specializing in media strategy, says a new cable station faces obstacles: getting on as many cable systems as possible, and once there, getting decent dial placement. Asked if other major cable networks had fewer than seven thousand viewers in their early days, Adgate admits, “Not that low!” Still, he points out that “Fox News didn’t start out gangbusters. Within three to four years, it was a serious rival to cnn.” Patricia Phalen, of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, isn’t writing FBN’s obituary either. “What really matters with the ratings,” she explains, “is who are those people, not just how many overall viewers are there.”
Since FBN did not make anyone available for an interview with CJR, we don’t know anything about the actual demographics of its tiny band of fans. But judging from FBN’s programming, as well as past statements by Fox officials, the intended audience is quite different from that of rival CNBC, which has the richest viewers of any cable network during the business day (CNBC watchers have a median household net worth of $1.46 million, according to data from Mendelsohn Media Research). FBN constantly champions Main Street over Wall Street, and addresses its reports to the ordinary middle-class American wondering how her 401k is doing, and how she is going to make her mortgage payment. This makes the network an intriguing project, despite its many flaws.
Though much has been made—including on-air at FBN—of the rivalry between FBN and CNBC, the gap between their potential viewers is as vast as the growing income gap between the middle class and the wealthy. In an informal conversation shortly after FBN’s launch, one CNBC on-air personality told me that Fox’s potential audience was so different from CNBC’s that he was not concerned about the new network; in fact, he said, he and his colleagues weren’t even watching it. Dan Gainor, whose organization, BMI, has a weekly segment on FBN, agrees that CNBC doesn’t have much to fear; he thinks it’s more likely that FBN will steal viewers from ABC, NBC, and CBS.