Let’s be clear on the facts first before I get all philosophical: For two nights running, CNBC lagged dramatically behind Fox Business Network in prime-time ratings for the Republican National Convention.
FBN more than doubled CNBC in the 10-to-11 p.m. slot on Tuesday, with 388,000 viewers in total, 161,000 of those in the 25-54 age demo. According to the Nielsen numbers, CNBC pulled in a mere 163,000 total.
The Tuesday kickoff special on Neil Cavuto’s show was an all-time high — not just for the show, but for all of Fox Business.
With Cavuto at the helm again, Wednesday’s edge was even more decisive. These Wednesday evening numbers (from Nielsen Media Research) speak for themselves:
- 8 p.m.: 205,000 total, 44,000 in the 24-54 demo range
- 9 p.m.: 245,000, 80,000 demo
- 10 p.m.: 190,000, 49,000 demo
- 11-11:30 p.m.: 130,000, 35,000 demo
- 8 p.m.: 149,000, 75,000 demo
- 9 p.m.: 243,000, 148,000 demo
- 10-11:30 p.m.: 79,000, 25,000 demo
Hopefully you’ve read this far. Because while those are the facts, where the data ends and the context begins is where things really start to get interesting.
Fox Divides and Conquers
It has to be noted that the 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. slots on CNBC were American Greed broadcasts. It didn’t start its core GOP primary coverage until 10 p.m. … and got torn up in that slot.
On one hand, you could argue that FBN was simply riding the power of the conservative brand that its larger sibling Fox News has built with its most popular commentators like O’Reilly and Hannity. So of course it would win out on a convention night. But on the other, you could argue Fox Business is carving out a very important media identity right now.
Consider that Neil Cavuto has been on the ball for months when it comes to politics — most glaringly covering primary races while competitors at CNBC were airing infomercials. The crusty newshound in me wants to give a fellow journalist props for that … but the reality is that Fox isn’t just doing this out of altruism. It knows that this is its chance to make a splash with FBN and differentiate it from CNBC.
“Yeah, yeah,” you say. “Bottom line is it’s election coverage on a financial news channel. People are watching that on the main Fox News channel or CNN anyway, so stop reading into it.”
That’s actually the whole point of FBN, in my opinion. It’s about giving a specific viewer a place to get a specific flavor of information.
Critics say that CNBC is “real” markets coverage and doesn’t do as much softball stuff as Fox — but what they fail to understand is that Fox seems to be courting a more Main Street audience by design. It’s not a lack of skill that makes them pick a seemingly simple issue over a complex one, but what I see as a targeted strategy.
In short, Fox Business isn’t trying to out-CNBC CNBC. It’s trying to out-Fox CNBC.
And it’s working.
No Such Thing as “Mainstream Media”
If you’re a savvy media consumer, you know that in this modern media landscape, few outlets truly go head-to-head anymore. Instead they carve out a niche — with a certain flavor and a limited coverage universe that results in a smaller but fiercely loyal audience.
I frequent a number of very specific markets blogs like Pragmatic Capitalism, The Reformed Broker and others. These sites get many more page views from me than the business section of USA TODAY online because they appeal to my specific tastes in market news.
Another example: My wife is addicted to crafty blogs like Making It Lovely. She reads that stuff more than any “real” website or news outlet.
My brother is a rabid Atlanta Braves fan and has dozens of obscure fanblogs he surfs all season long. He rarely ever goes to ESPN and certainly doesn’t bother with the local paper’s sports pages.
You get the point. Sure, there are big stories that we go to the conventional sources for. But being a generalist sucks because you get out-sported by the sports sites or out-politicked by the politics sites or out-fooded by the food sites. I worked at newspapers for almost a decade, and I can tell you difinitevely that the idea of being an inch deep and a mile wide is very, very dead.
And in 2012, it’s time that newer media outlets learn that lesson before it’s too late. That goes for broadcast TV networks, big media networks like Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) and everything in between.
Back to Fox Biz: By carving out a unique (and broader) part of the financial news market instead of catering only to day traders or hedge fund managers, FBN is not just creating its own identity, but tapping into a viewership with a much larger critical mass. News Corp (NASDAQ:NWSA), Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes are very savvy at this kind of differentition. After all, it’s ultimately what made Fox News eventually supplant CNN as the No. 1 cable news network.
The growth of Fox Business ratings-wise becomes even more impressive when you consider some of the logistical challenges it faces vs. CNBC. Consider that FBN is in only roughly 67 million households vs. 97 million for CNBC. Some of you reading this now might not even have the option of watching Fox Business — yet it continues to challenge CNBC despite having two-thirds the reach.
Another factoid that non-media types may be interested in: As a digital station, not an analog station, it actually is far afield from typical news stations. Go on, bring up your cable menu and look — the analog tier will include stations like CNN and CNBC next to each other, but Fox Business is waaaaay down the page. A seemingly minor distinction, but like being on the top of the ballot in an election, the increase in visibility really does matter.
In short, CNBC had better be careful not to discount Fox Business Network’s gains as just an anomaly due to a shared identity with an admittedly conservative news outlet. FBN is crafting and identity of its own very different than CNBC — and that could be the most effective strategy in the long run.
To be clear, I harbor no ill will toward CNBC. I have friends who appear regularly on its programming and I think its coverage is top notch. The network is a huge force in financial media with an impressive history. And frankly, there are many Fox Business programs that I don’t personally find compelling.
But that’s not the point. Fox Business doesn’t really care about winning everyone over. It cares about winning over their specific audience.
Judging by these latest numbers and previous ratings successes, it’s a strategy that’s paying off big-time.
Of course, the risk is that viewers wind up only getting the news they want to hear … but that is a discussion for another day.
Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com and the author of “The Frugal Investor’s Guide to Finding Great Stocks.” Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.