Viewership grows in troubled economy

One area where the war between Fox and NBC hasn’t gotten too bloody — at least yet — is business news, if only because CNBC is on a roll.

The network is successfully fighting the conventional wisdom that when the economy is tanking all over the place — from skyrocketing oil and food prices to a credit crunch that’s causing mass layoffs at major investment banks — people turn away from business news, not wanting to be reminded that their stocks and bonds are shedding value with alarming speed.

The advent of Jonathan Wald as CNBC’s senior VP of business news two years ago, responsible for riding herd on what the network calls its primetime (5 a.m. to 7 p.m.), was quickly followed by a Nielsen turnaround. CNBC’s overall numbers and viewership among its target 25-54 audience grew by double-digit percentages in both 2006 and 2007.

Wald, high-powered and energetic, says, “People seem hungrier than ever to watch us to find out what’s going on in the economy.”

He’s clearly pumped at being in charge of programming the key time periods on the second most profitable network (behind USA) in the NBC Universal portfolio.

When Rupert Murdoch and his top lieutenant Roger Ailes launched the competing Fox Business Network eight months ago, it reinforced the value of what we do at CNBC,” Wald says.

For now, it’s next to impossible to get a reading on how well FBN is doing, because it’s not a full-service client of Nielsen: Even though FBN gets ratings data for internal use, it can’t publish them, and Nielsen can’t make them available to media buyers or other networks.

Some in the industry are skeptical about the lack of audience data for a network that reaches 35 million subscribers and boasts of shelling out $100 million in startup costs. FBN features such former CNBC personalities as Alexis Glick, Liz Claman and Eric Bolling, and schedules shows hosted by Fox News business anchor Neil Cavuto and radio-news personality and author Dave Ramsey.

One skeptic, veteran network news analyst Andrew Tyndall, says, “If the PR people at Fox Business had any numbers to brag about, you can bet they’d be doing it. Their silence speaks volumes.”

But since Fox Business resides mostly on digital-basic tiers, the network insists Nielsen’s measurements are still not completely reliable.

Fox Business didn’t make any of its execs available for comment.

At CNBC, which had a 19-year head start on FBN, the Nielsen ratings are a mixed bag. Among total viewers, the network can do some chest-pounding: For the first six months of the year (through mid-June), CNBC’s business-day rating (5 a.m.-7 p.m.) is up by 20% from the same period in 2007, to an average of 296,000. The double-digit gains flow across all nine of its business-day shows (with one exception, the 5-p.m. “Fast Money” hour, which grew by 7%).

On the down side, CNBC dropped off by 6% year to date in its target audience of people 25 to 54, for an average of 84,000.

Thus, more people over the age of 50 are watching CNBC this year. But that’s not necessarily the kind of downer it would be for an entertainment network: The kind of advertisers who buy CNBC, including financial-services companies and luxury-car manufacturers, often pitch their products to older people, particularly educated ones with lots of investments who dote on business news.

Older viewers are one thing, but CNBC can’t stop tearing its hair out, because Nielsen still doesn’t record the countless numbers of people who watch the network on their desktop computers, or on monitors in exercise gyms, airports and upscale-hotel bars.

Still, Wald says advertisers who buy time on CNBC know their messages are beaming out to all of those uncounted viewers, which is why the network will scarf up a projected $264.4 million in gross ad revenues in 2008, according to SNL Kagan. That’s the fourth yearly ad-revenue increase in a row for the network.

CNBC’s expenses have also risen steadily each year since 2004 (with a forecast of $277.4 million this year). The network’s ultra-modern headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., a short hop from Manhattan, is bigger than an airplane hangar and studded with cubicles for reporters, editors and other staffers, with studios where most of the programs originate. The place is so vast and intimidating that one exec has dubbed it the Death Star.

One of the main items on CNBC’s agenda is keeping close tabs on Barack Obama and John McCain. Most surveys show that the unstable economy has eclipsed Iraq as the No. 1 issue in the presidential campaign, and Wald says viewers want to know how the two candidates differ from one another on issues ranging from subprime mortgages to the cost of a barrel of oil.

Although SNL Kagan says Fox Business will not see any profits before 2011-12, CNBC is not taking its competitor lightly. Wald says CNBC is almost obsessed with breaking stories before anybody else, saying he’d match his staff against White House switchboard operators, who are famous for being able to reach anyone, anywhere, anytime, at a moment’s notice.

Wald wants CNBC to deliver lots of information presented without Wall Street jargon, but he’s also gung-ho for dramatic television. Powerful personalities including Maria Bartiromo, Erin Burnett, Dylan Ratigan, Jim Cramer and Larry Kudlow have enticed more viewers to their various shows this year.

And you’ll never see just one expert as the guest on a CNBC show. The network’s bookers seek out two or more guests for each show, encouraging them to give strong voice to their different points of view. “We want conflict,” Wald says. “The buyer vs. the seller, clashing at the intersection of fear and greed.”

But what happens if the economy continues to flounder? Not a problem, says Wald, who plans to keep people watching CNBC by “making sure that we keep answering our viewers’ main question: How do I protect what I have?”

As he puts it, “If there’s a silver lining, we’ll keep advancing the story until we find it.”

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