Everybody's business

Financial news nets angling to make most of recession

PBS carves its own niche in financial news
Q&A: Maria Bartiromo
Q&A: Neil Cavuto

The financial meltdown has left entertainment companies struggling with declining ad revs and the downsizing of operations.

But one media niche -- financial news nets -- has thrived in the depressed landscape, as people on Wall Street and on Main Street alike try to make sense of the money malaise.

While recessions typically dampen ratings of business channels, it's the reverse for these players.

Flush with cash, a growing, or at least stable, number of viewers, and advertisers still looking to reach the well-heeled, CNBC, Fox Business Network and Bloomberg TV are each hungry to wrest an advantage -- and eat each other's lunch.

Biz news hasn't been this prevalent in the headlines for years.

Taking advantage of the country's broad anxieties, eight of the top 10 cable biz shows are not even on those three biz channels, including "Your World With Neil Cavuto," which airs on Fox News Channel, and "Your Bottom Line," on CNN. That means there's a larger than once thought audience for such information; but it also means the Big Three biz channels have to ward off incursions from general newsies as well as nibble at one another.

"The story of the last couple of years was the presidential campaign and politics. Since then the economy has totally filled the vacuum," says David Rhodes, head of Bloomberg TV in the U.S.

And things may get tougher. Success during an almost unprecedented economic downturn is one thing. But what will the Big Three do when the economy improves -- or (gulp) if it remains in such dire straits so long that it becomes old news?

If there's a strategy in the works for such scenarios, the three biz channels aren't divulging them.

But they are talking about how they are differentiating their individual brands and competing against one another.

CNBC, which stands for Consumer News and Business Channel, launched in 1989 when the Dow was at 2,337; it can arguably be said that the channel has rewritten the rules of financial journalism for the era of the 24/7 news cycle.

Celebrating its 20th anni today, CNBC attracted an average of 281,000 viewers in the first quarter, up from 262,000 in the fourth quarter last year and 234,000 the quarter prior to that. It also set a record profit in the first quarter this year.

"We've seen only gains since September," says CNBC president Mark Hoffman. "Our strengths have been accentuated during the financial crisis. It's a real-time story and we're a real-time network."

Over the past two decades, CNBC has become the financial news brand with the broadest household reach and most recognizable on-air talent -- from Mario Bartiromo to David Faber, Becky Quick and Jim Cramer.

Hoffman says the channel interviews about 140 guests each day, up from 40 in 2005, before he was named president. That way, the nicher can maintain a bull-bear balance and what he calls "a culture of qualitative conflict."

But CNBC's reliance on talking-head financial analysts have left it exposed to criticism that it is part of the Wall Street establishment that failed to foresee the meltdown. The recent face-off between Cramer and "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart was a telling indication of just how much influence, for better or worse, such financial gurus now wield, but also how coziness with the Street can be a liability.

"People are looking to find out why the crisis happened," Bartiromo says in defense of the channel. "It's fair game to include journalists in that process, but to blame CNBC is silly."

CNBC has also recently been under fire from liberals who perceive a sudden rightward tilt, especially since a February rant against the mortgage bailout from the network's Rick Santelli.

Still, given these perceived misteps, upstart rival FBN senses it is time for it, too, to take some potshots.

Encouraged by a relative audience surge in the past five months, the Fox nicher is aiming to chip away at CNBC's substantial market share.

One way is with its four-hour call-in show on Saturdays when CNBC is awash in infomercials. "The phones ring off the hook every time we do it," FBN exec vp Kevin Magee says.

FBN, though, has a lot of catching up to do given that it only launched a year and a half ago, reaches fewer homes and is on digital cable tiers. While Nielsen doesn't officially track FBN or Bloomberg, figures obtained by THR show FBN was up 155% in March over the year-ago period, averaging nearly 40,000 viewers.

"Financially, these are crazy times," a recent FBN commercial started off. "The last thing you need is bad advice. The last thing you need is CNBC's Jim Cramer."

"This Cramer thing hurt their credibility," Magee argues. "We've made mistakes, too, but we don't create a circus atmosphere over stock recommendations."

FBN's ability to quickly adapt has been built in from the start, explains Eric Bolling, who co-created "Fast Money" for CNBC before joining FBN as co-host of "Happy Hour."

"Fox said, 'paint your own picture here.' It's less structured, less inside-baseball than CNBC. They told me to tell the audience what's important to me," Bolling says.If CNBC bestrides the niche fairly broadly and FBN focuses on Main Street and the little guys, 15-year-old Bloomberg Television aims unabashedly at the high-end coterie of professional moneymen and the financially astute.

Taking advantage of its worldwide staff of more than 2,000 journalists in 145 bureaus, it is the only round-the-clock global financial news TV service.

Like FNB, Bloomberg is looking to compete more aggressively with market leader CNBC.

"I have never seen more interest in financial and business information and demand is up across Bloomberg's distribution platforms," says TK Rhodes, who points to recent scoops. The channel broke news that Goldman Sachs may return TARP money and got real estate titan Sam Zell to admit earlier this week that his media investment in Tribune was a mistake.

Also, in a major move, Bloomberg hired former Sony BMG chairman and NBC News president Andrew Lack in October to run its TV, radio and online news divisions.

All in all, the three nichers are convinced they can continue to ride the financial wave, and that once money issues are no longer at the top of the national agenda -- and regular newscasts have moved on to other things -- their niche will still be, well, nifty.

FBN's Neil Cavuto summed up the challenge: "It's like what Johnny Carson said about being the host of 'The Tonight Show' host for 30-odd years. He said "I always kept it relevant." One thing I have always warned the staff at FBN about is: be relevant, be topical, be in the world that everyone else is in and see the trends."