Fox Unfazed by Business Channel's Slow Start

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008

Less than three months after its much-ballyhooed launch, Fox Business Network is drawing an average of 6,000 daytime viewers.

The Nielsen number, for the period Oct. 15 through Dec. 16, rises to 15,000 during prime time.

Taken in isolation, the debut might be judged an abysmal failure. But no one -- including Fox executives -- expected the fledgling channel to make a serious run at the top business network, CNBC, until it had been on the air for at least a year.

Still, the figures reinforce the perception that Rupert Murdoch's newest television operation faces a very steep climb.

By contrast, 19-year-old CNBC averaged 281,000 daytime viewers and 234,000 in prime time during the same period. Those are modest figures by cable standards, but CNBC makes about $325 million a year because advertisers value its affluent audience.

"It's absolutely no surprise," Kevin Magee, Fox's executive vice president, said yesterday of the Fox Business numbers. "This is the way you build a network. You get on the air, build your shows and hope the audience finds you. It's still incredibly early."

The NBC unit has more established stars, such as Maria Bartiromo, Jim Cramer and Erin Burnett. CNBC also reaches 90 million homes, about triple the number of Fox Business. In every market except Manhattan -- including the Washington area -- the new Fox channel is on digital cable systems rather than basic cable.

Fox executives see a few bright spots. For instance, a third of the 6,000 average viewers were in the coveted 25-to-54 age group. For the week ending Dec. 16, 8 p.m. anchor Dave Ramsey, who also hosts a business talk show on radio, averaged 27,000 viewers. The 2 p.m. program hosted by Liz Claman, who defected from CNBC, and David Asman, who remains a Fox News Channel anchor, is averaging about 16,000.

Fox Business has positioned itself as a hipper, consumer-oriented alternative to CNBC, staging one show from a bar and trying to appeal more to ordinary investors than Wall Street types. It has drawn some ridicule for stunts such as an interview with Times Square's "Naked Cowboy," who plays guitar clad only in his underwear, but also has generated its share of buzz.

Reporters at the Wall Street Journal, which Murdoch bought last month, have showed up occasionally on Fox Business. But under a contract that runs through 2012, Journal staffers can make regularly scheduled appearances only on CNBC.

Magee noted that it took Fox News five years to become the top-rated cable news network.

"We're still a baby," he said. "We're still looking at everything and tweaking as we go along. More important, it takes a while to change people's viewing habits."

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