Happy All the Time

Fox Business Network's populist sensibility is refreshing, sort of, but nobody's watching. Here's why

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.

The first difference that a veteran CNBC watcher will notice is FBN’s careful avoidance of financial jargon. CNBC would make little sense to anyone unfamiliar with terms like “basis point.” A recent headline on CNBC read, ARE WE ETF’D OUT? In the teaser, host Erin Burnett didn’t say what ETF stood for; CNBC’s audience knows it stands for exchange-traded funds. In FBN-land, a completely different language is spoken. Cody Willard, long-haired co-host of FBN’s nightly “Happy Hour” and founder of his own investment management company, broadcasts his show from the Waldorf-Astoria’s “Bull and Bear” bar, sitting next to an enormous tip jar; he has to toss in some money every time he uses financial jargon without explanation—whenever, as he says on-air, “I get too wonky.” If you’ve ever suspected that, given New York’s astronomical rents, the hipsters still swarming its gritty bars must actually be hedge-fund managers, Cody Willard—who moonlights in a band called Museum of the Horse—is your man. With an aura of his supposed coolness plus business success, he’s clearly intended to have an aspirational appeal, though his smug grin may lead some to thoughts of violent expropriation—or, more likely, channel-switching.

Still, FBN can be fun. An evening feature called “America’s Nightly Scoreboard,” hosted by the likable David Asman, who is always smiling and has a voice like Jimmy Stewart, rates business (as well as some cultural and political) phenomena as stocks (Buy? Sell? Or Hold?). Guests weigh in, but the scoreboard has a mind of its own, and the sensibility is a kind of high-tech vaudeville, as the “Sell” recommendation is delivered noisily, Gong Show-style.

In contrast to its smarter, smoother, and more bombastically entertaining brother, the Fox News Channel, the ideological tone of Fox Business Network is not a shrill one. White House deputy spokesman Tony Fratto faced tough questions about the economy from Asman recently: “We’re really in trouble. It sounds like you’re saying, just let the market take care of it. Is that right?” Asman, whose résumé includes such conservative affiliations as the Manhattan Institute, has also been fair on the effectiveness of Bush’s policies, pointing out that the 2001 tax rebate failed to stimulate the economy. Perhaps most surprisingly, FBN’s coverage of the recently ended Writers Guild strike was balanced, even sympathetic.

The sensibility on FBN is a populist one, and there’s no inherent conflict between populism and conservatism (though some of the Republicans unwilling to vote for Mike Huckabee may feel otherwise). But there’s sensibility and then there’s substance. In the case of FBN, even a slight conservative tilt may be limiting the audience, particularly in the way that this bias influences the stories that are chosen. The network aired a useful report on the Earned Income Tax Credit, pointing out that many people who are eligible never even claim it, urging viewers to pick up their checks if their incomes were low enough to qualify. But as it happens, the EITC is a policy that conservatives approve; policies disliked by conservatives but also helpful to low-income Americans, such as raising the minimum wage, do not receive this level of attention on FBN.

Other matters of interest to Middle America—but not to most conservative pundits—include the widening income inequality and the rising cost of college education and health care; none of these gets much attention on FBN either. And while Main Street is increasingly interested in the growing “green” opportunities for small entrepreneurs, on this issue Fox populism sometimes shades into know-nothing-ism; anchor Cheryl Casone routinely objects to alternative energy with this insight: “The problem is that sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.”

One of the weirdest things about Fox Business Network—and potentially most alienating to an economically anxious middle-class audience—is its relentless effort to squeeze upbeat news out of a terrible economy. Given low retail-sales numbers, a dismal stock market, a spike in unemployment at the end of 2007, layoffs, and record losses for banks (Citigroup and Merrill Lynch each lost tens of billions), staying positive in January was a Herculean project. But Fox tried hard. Pharmaceutical stocks are still strong! Mortgage applications are up! The housing market isn’t bad everywhere, commentators agreed one morning. “On the plane, I sat next to this woman whose boyfriend is in real estate in Kansas City,” one analyst, a regular on FBN’s morning show, offered, “and he’s doing really well!” A few days later, another “expert” countered a discouraging retail-sales number with this observation: “Anecdotally, I go to the store and people are still buying stuff.” Bad news is reported, but always quickly countered by good, no matter how far Fox’s cheerleaders have to stretch to find the good. “Uplift me!” anchor Alexis Glick had to exhort her guests on a recent sobering morning.

On January 10, in the wake of a Goldman Sachs report predicting recession, Cheryl Casone, struggling to find a silver lining, noted that “inventories were up, reflecting consumer confidence.” Actually, high inventories reflect just the opposite; inventory accumulates, of course, when people are not buying stuff. Throughout the same week, high sales by Wal-Mart and Costco were repeatedly cited as “bright spots” on a sorry retail landscape (when, in fact, if people are only shopping at discount retail stores, it may be a sign that they feel economically pressed).

After a few days of this, I was bewildered, and had to find out why they were all so happy. Weren’t we all looking at the same numbers? Or was good cheer some sort of right-wing talking point? It turns out that yes, it is. Dan Gainor, the Fox Business Network commentator, is also a vice president for the Business & Media Institute, a pro-free-market watchdog organization dedicated to criticizing “anti-business” bias in the media. He explained in an interview that coverage of the economy is far more negative when Republicans are in office. Conservatives see this as a sign of liberal bias. In the current political climate, Gainor adds, “a bad economy is seen as a launching pad for Democrat and left ideas.” So the Fox cheerleaders are correcting for what they see as a liberal slant toward negativity in mainstream media.

But such exuberance may be off-putting to his intended audience on FBN, members of the nervous middle class, who are dealing with reality. According to a recent Pew survey, 50 percent of Americans say they are not happy with their economic situation. Most likely, the relentlessly upbeat prattle from FBN’s Pollyannas will annoy the hell out of them.

At times, FBN is just plain dumb. Some of the Murdoch Playmates are genuine bimbos, while others play their dopey roles convincingly, and the choice of material they’re given isn’t pretty. One morning, Alexis Glick, the lusciously made-up anchor—also a Columbia graduate who has worked as an equity analyst for Goldman Sachs and directed New York Stock Exchange floor operations at Morgan Stanley, though you’d never guess it from her breathless on-air persona—dizzily conducts an inspiring interview with a woman who has broken the glass ceiling in the all-important industry of competitive beach volleyball. A few other critical, breaking stories on FBN, as the American economy careened into chaos and uncertainty, included a check-cashing fraud involving a corpse, and “the Meanest Mom on the Planet” (she sold her teenage son’s car after finding booze under the seat!). There’s no doubt that CNBC is more journalistically serious than Fox. Almost any random dial-flipping will provide the contrast, but here’s just one: While CNBC featured New York Times columnist David Leonhardt explaining substantive economic policy differences among the Republican candidates, Fox was reporting that despite her scandalous pregnancy, people are still watching Jamie Lynn Spears’s TV show.

As usual in any Murdoch outlet, there are signs of the media mogul’s personal agenda on FBN. Thus, the morning round-up, in which Fox commentators highlight stories from important newspapers, includes The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The New York Times and…the New York Post, the local tabloid not known for economic insight, but owned by Murdoch. Indeed, New York Post stories are frequently mentioned on FBN, often with blaring irrelevance. For instance, the Post’s January 14 page-one story about the “fake” Jessica Simpson—“stunning lookalike Lynsey Nordstrom”—whom the paper sent to the Giants-Cowboys game allegedly to distract Simpson’s boyfriend, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, was cited several times, though this was hardly a market-moving event. Meanwhile, the Financial Times, a competitor of the Murdoch-owned Journal, is constantly mocked on air for being “dry” and “boring.”

Fox Business Network can be fun to watch, and its semi-populist perspective is a refreshing change from CNBC’s business jargon and narrow Wall Street-centered worldview. Sure, it can be silly, and politically biased. But what’s really missing from Fox is, oddly, the actual perspective and experience of the average Joe, to whom extensive lip service is given on air.

What television can do that print and the Internet cannot is to show what a situation looks like, and allow us to hear what the people affected by it have to say. To hear opinions and read numbers, peppered with updates on Britney Spears, we can read blogs. Fox Business Network talking heads drone on at length. Opinions are expressed and guesses are industriously hazarded, all without much reporting on what those numbers look like out there in America.

And if FBN were to be intellectually honest in early 2008, some of that reporting would necessarily be less than upbeat. We don’t meet—or hear the voices of—people losing their homes in foreclosure, telecom workers losing their jobs, small-business people struggling with health-care costs. We never even meet FBN’s favorite protagonist: the consumer trying to make ends meet. We don’t see the neighborhoods in Cleveland that have been devastated by the mortgage mess. Murdoch knows how to make news entertaining, but economic news is greatly enlivened by real human beings, stories, and scenes. Even CNBC has done some of its best work—though it does this far too rarely—when it’s gone beyond pontification about the latest indicators to talk to some nonpundits. Fox reporters, too, rarely leave the studio (except to film updates from the trading floor). Curiously, given its repeated commitment to Main Street, small-business people are nearly as invisible as workers in FBN’s bullish world, an unusual place inhabited entirely by pundits, analysts, and financiers. No wonder nobody’s watching.

Fox doesn’t yet give the business class a reason to switch its dial from CNBC. And it’s probably tough to build a TV audience beyond Wall Street for business and economic news (though, as a journalist who often covers economic issues for a nonbusiness audience, I’d hate to believe this!). People do care deeply about economic issues—after all, the economy is the top-rated issue for voters in this election cycle—but may find them too boring, or, for that matter, stressful, to follow day-to-day. To engage normal Americans, talking heads will not be enough. To find its audience, Fox may have to deliver more than good cheer and beach volleyball. To see what’s really happening in the American economy—and to provide better television—it may be necessary to leave the party at the Murdoch mansion.

I can’t say I wholeheartedly wish FBN success. CNBC still provides the smarter, more realistic financial coverage for its elite viewers. But there’s surely a need for a TV network asking: How’s capitalism working for the rest of us? A serious journalistic approach to that question would surely find plenty of material and might well find an audience. But it’s not hard to understand why Rupert Murdoch might resist it. 

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Liza Featherstone is a regular contributor to Slate's The Big Money Web site, and the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart.