Some recent reports have said that News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWS, NWSA) is struggling to find traction with its relatively new financial network, Fox Business Network. Difficulties wouldn’t be surprising — all financial media outlets have suffered from a disinterested public that has checked out of the stock market, and at only four years old, Fox Biz has its work cut out for it when it comes to competing with entrenched rival CNBC.
The vultures began circling after a recent press release revealing the elimination of prime-time programming on FBN. The lost shows will be replaced with reruns of some of Fox Biz’s more popular “after the bell” shows starring Neil Cavuto, Lou Dobbs and Gerri Willis. On its surface, the announcement makes it sound like Fox Business Network is struggling to fill its programming slots.
But don’t count Fox Business out yet. In his 2011 letter to shareholders, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch notes, “Over at FOX Business Network our ratings are improving — and at certain times of the day we’re head to head with CNBC, and sometimes beating them.” That’s undoubtedly in reference to Lou Dobbs, who has done well in the 7 p.m. slot. Dobbs has given his CNBC rival Larry Kudlow a run for his money, beating him in ratings on several occasions in 2011.
What’s more, it’s important to recognize that while daily viewership lags CNBC significantly, you have to at least acknowledge a difference in distribution. As of 2011, Fox Biz only reached about 50 million households while rival CNBC is part of cable packages in the households of around 100 million U.S. viewers and more than 380 million worldwide. It’s hard to say viewers are “choosing” CNBC when they might not even have Fox Biz as an option.
Furthermore, FBN continues to poach talent from around the financial media to grow its stable of contributors — including the recent addition of Melissa Francis. In fact, this programming shake-up is in part to clear a spot for Francis later this year when she gets her own show, giving her one of the duplicate spots when staff is in place.
Francis already is flexing her muscles — lining up a rare opportunity to tour bank branches with JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon on Monday, then do a live sit-down interview. That kind of quality content will go a long way toward winning the ratings war in the long term.
Bottom line: The network is aggressively growing and, according to reports, is now break-even for News Corp. even if it’s not quite a cash cow yet.
There assuredly are causes for concern. Namely, the fact that periods of success in the daily lineup are also mixed with spots Fox is trying hard to figure out. Medialife magazine reports the channel ranked 89th out of 93 networks last year in prime time, averaging just 53,000 total viewers, according to Nielsen data — less than a quarter of CNBC’s 228,000 eyeballs snagged by its primetime lineup. So it’s not like the shows in this slot will exactly be missed while Fox rethinks its evening lineup.
But it seems premature to label Fox Business Network as a failure doomed to always play second fiddle to CNBC. After all, News Corp. mastermind Roger Ailes took on entrenched Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) news channel CNN in 1996, and many thought it was folly. A decade later, Fox News was bumping CNN from its perch, and by 2010 it owned the top 10 spots for most-watched cable news programs.
Will Fox Biz ever reach those heights, and will it be able to lap CNBC as dramatically as Fox News passed CNN? Only time will tell. But history shows it’s not wise to bet against Mr. Ailes, especially this early in the game.
It’s also worth pointing out that while reruns are going to fill FBN’s prime-time slots in the short term, the network is making a concerted effort toward live, financial-focused coverage through 9 p.m. That’s a wise move considering market news doesn’t sleep these days and the eurozone debt crisis is unfolding five or six time zones away. I’m not sure what CNBC has in store, but to hear Media Bistro tell it … it looks like reality TV.
It’s hard to say if or when FBN will show up significantly on News Corp.’s bottom line. But one thing is for sure: Considering all the recent shake-ups over at Fox Biz as it tries to challenge a dominant CNBC, it should be fun to watch.
Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook. Jeff Reeves holds a position in Alcoa, but no other publicly traded stocks.