Ah, we're into the week of The Wiles and Wails of Roger Ailes. Fox Business Channel launches Monday, all industry eyes glued to the story, the first demonstrable play associated with Rupert Murdoch's Dow Jones putsch. That sale is due to close in November, but this FBN launch is a first act in Murdoch's quest for global domination of the business news and information business.
Ailes has long been a character of Rovian dimension, and he gets to see if he can put the same fright into CNBC that he put into CNN. His confident swagger was on glorious display in -- naturally -- the Wall Street Journal last week, as he gave an interview.
A little trash talk, a few war metaphors, and tomorrow, we'll be off to the races:
WSJ: How has the network changed since you left?
MR. AILES: It's gone down in ratings dramatically. I checked the numbers of the fourth calendar quarter in 95, my last year there. Their total day is down 5 percent and their demographic is down 15 percent. Prime time is down 61 percent and prime time demo is down 53 percent. So, it's changed quite a bit since I was there.
And leave it to Ailes to use war metaphors to make his point:
MR. AILES: I never predict offensive goals. I think that was Israel's problem in Lebanon. Look, there are too many variables: is there gonna be a recession? Will that affect the ratings on either channel? Will CNBC suddenly get better? Will something work out with The Wall Street Journal? Will we be better than expected? Is it gonna rain? There are just too many variables. So you don't go out there and say: I'm gonna do this.
But the wiles of the man are well-earned. Here are nine questions for News Corp upon launch:
1. What’s the attitude of FBN going to be? Ailes’ Fox News Channel is all about attitude. It’s news with a scowl, the face of Bill O’Reilly. That won’t work as easily with FBN. Will it be business news with a knowing insider’s wink? No, we don’t expect the Fox News spin here (two well-coiffed, super-carnivorous Irish-Americans vs. a single bespectacled, nice-guy (on nice-gal) weakling du jour from NPR).
Plenty of Americans like spin with their politics, but they won’t want it with their pocketbooks. “Free Markets, Free People” – the cry of the largely discredited neocons – only goes so far. Already, we’ve heard from FBN managing editor Neil Cavuto that other media over-covered Wall Street’s recent spate of company scandals, for which incidentally the soon-to-be-Foxed WSJ has won accolades. But investors have been outraged by the dealings, and they know they were getting screwed. Money is money, and FBN’s viewers will want the network to help get them get more of it.
So Fox’s moves here will have to be more nuanced. It will be tricky getting this formula right, but it did take FNC 4 years to overtake CNN.
2) How many more Carly Fiorinas are going to come out of the woodwork? Hey cable TV and the web have proven anyone can be an analyst. Fiorina – short on recent success, but a name that will be a shiny lure as FBN fishes in CNBC’s big pond and beyond – will get viewers to look. Expect more names to line up for the FBN show. Forget Scott Boras and A-Rod, this is a great time to be an agent for the likes of Suze Orman, Jane Bryant Quinn, Jim Cramer, Andrew Tobias and James B. Stewart.
3. How Main Street will FBN go? Organic, a San Francisco-based ad agency, defined four potential targets from Nest Egg Newbie to Middle American Main Streeter, as it suggested FBN broaden its scope beyond CNBC’s narrow focus. Advantage to FBN: Getting beyond the narrow CNBC Investing-oriented reader, reaching more money-oriented viewers, in two huge personal finance categories: Spending and Saving. Disadvantage to FBN: Going mid-market reduces the demographics FBN has to sell ads against. CNBC’s viewers have average net worths of $2.7 million, says the company.
Remember the current market is all about niche. While the potential audience of CNBC is 90 million households, most of us find it way too boring compared to the Top Chefs, the Survivors and the Discovery specials. In August, CNBC’s average audience numbered only 87,000 people, aged 25-54, according to Nielsen.
So, yes, FBN is on to a big idea here. There may well be a market vacuum. But it exists for a reason. Most Main Streeters don’t look at stopping by the bank as fun, they’d rather spend money and leave the strategies to others.
Consequently, expect this Main Street approach to take on lots of the per fi magazine evergreens – Retire Rich! (yes, yet again this month from Time Inc.’s Money). You know the 24-hour TV cycle can endlessly run “How to Save for Your Kids’ Education,” “Top 10 Places to Retire,” and “Picking the Right Financial Advisor for YOU.”
4. How will FBN leverage the reporting and personality assets it is buying (in November) as it closes the Dow Jones purchase? We do know that CNBC has a fairly tight exclusive to use WSJ reporters on air into 2012. Murdoch has publicly made the point that the deal applies to “hard news”. It would be fun seeing a court apply a hard/soft scale to stories. Look at Murdoch’s posturing as setting up the argument that all those personal finance writers and columnists, all those contributors to the Journal’s expanding Weekend (arts, leisure, spending) and Pursuits sections plus all those Marketwatch and Barron’s writers aren’t covered by the deal.
5) How much will FBN be a TV play, and how much will it be a well-coordinated multi-channel play? Let’s recall that Rupert bought Dow Jones for $5 billion – at a 67% premium – because he sees its global multi-channel value. He’s named this initiative the Fox Business Network, unlike the 10-year-old Fox News Channel. First off, we’ll have to check out how FBN’s website evolves, how it connects to interactive financial advances of Marketwatch (nice customizable portfolio recently launched in beta) and how it connects to the company’s other online brands – wsj.com, barrons.com and Marketwatch.com. Those sites offer FBN a big leg-up over CNBC – never a leader in the online money space – if connected smartly. Is there a growing online money space? Yes, such ventures like FNN and CNNfn were too early, but that was then, and money, like other top categories benefits from the maturing of web business.
Though most everyone is pitching the launch as a TV battle, it’s clear that video, audio, text and photo assets are all merging – yes, finally converging – on websites near and far, with a fast-growing base of Internet-based advertising under them. Make no mistake this is not just a TV battle.
One useful data point: check out Comscore’s top 20 news websites, and you’ll see that the Fox News Channel leads all of them in duration – number of minutes spent on the site monthly – now at an eye-popping 48 minutes per unique visitor, in the September numbers just released. Fox has figured something out better than the competition here, or at least how to make its numbers look bigger.