Maria Bartiromo Aims Build Fox Business

CNBC veteran charts new course and vows perspective and insight, not stock picks, will carry the day

When Maria Bartiromo departed her longtime perch at CNBC in November for a competitor, she did so knowing full well it would trigger a condition that would keep her off the air for 60 days – an eternity in the rapid-fire world of business news. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t working.

Bartiromo, who left for a new job that will put her on Fox Business Network and Fox News Channel, has quietly been reaching out to major players, traders, top corporate executives and social-network followers. She even journeyed to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to cultivate sources and get the word out about her new destination: a morning program, “Opening Bell with Maria Bartiromo,” that debuts today at 9 a.m. Eastern on FBN.

Fox Business has reworked a good chunk of its daytime schedule to accommodate Bartiromo, who broke out of the business-news niche and gained larger fame by having the temerity to broadcast from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as frenzied Wall Street traders went about their day. The network has trimmed time once allotted to its early-morning attraction, a simulcast of Don Imus’ radio program. And it has moved Stuart Varney, the previous occupant of the “Opening Bell” slot, to later in the day.

“We are trying to build a business network,” Bartiromo said in an interview, “and so I think in order to have a business network you need to have morning shows.”

Will “Opening Bell” stand apart from its primary TV competitor, CNBC’s “Squawk On The Street”? Bartiromo has ideas. She says she knows business-news aficionados get more of the nitty-gritty of the stock market – earnings reports, analyst ratings changes and stock movements – from any number of web sites and digital players. And so, she’d like to help viewers gain more perspective and put pieces of news together by working her sources and providing longer, in-depth interviews with important observers and players.

“There was a moment in time when it was really all about the stock market, and I know, because I was there,” she said. ”I think today viewers want something very different.” People with an interest in business “want to know about the latest technology. They want the international story, the emerging markets. They want to know about jobs. They want to know more and expect more and deeper perspective. That really is my opportunity.”

For Fox Business Network, the hire is a big, and likely expensive, maneuver. While the network has notched audience growth over its six years, CNBC retains a sizable lead. Another big name FBN has lured, Lou Dobbs, has maintained his cachet, but has not mustered the viewership numbers he enjoyed at CNN.

“In terms of ratings, it is likely that a small percentage of people will follow Maria over to her new morning slot at FBN, but I don’t think it’s going to make for a huge ratings boost,” said Billie Gold, vice president and director of buying and programming research at Carat, a large ad-buying firm that counts General Motors among its clients. One of the issues, said Gold, is distribution. By her estimates, CNBC reaches about 82.3% of U.S. TV homes while Fox Business reaches 66.6%.

Bartiromo’s arrival adds luster to the FBN lineup, said Kevin Magee, the network’s executive vice president, and helps cultivate a viewership advertisers want. “What we have is a very good audience in that it is a very wealthy audience, and that’s very attractive to advertisers. It’s not a pure numbers game. It’s the quality of the audience, not the overall size.”

Executives at Fox Business owner 21st Century Fox hope Bartiromo’s arrival heralds a new chapter for FBN. “I do think Fox Business is really beginning to hit its stride,” said Chase Carey, 21st Century Fox’s chief operating officer, during a recent conference call with investors. “ I think Maria Bartiromo is going to add a great dimension to it. We continue to strengthen distribution agreements to Fox Business. I think that channel really has an increasingly exciting future, as it really begins to carve out a space with the distribution platform finally fully in place.”

Fox Business Network has increased its viewership over the past five years, In 2009, the network attracted an average of 28,000 viewers and 8,000 among viewers between 25 and 54, the demographic preferred by advertisers, according to Nielsen data. In 2014, through February 18, FBN lured an average of 58,000 viewers overall and 13,000 in the 25-to-54 demo. The network recently added Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, the one-time MTV personality known better by her middle name, to its primetime lineup. And it is slated to launch a new daytime show focused on investing hosted by Deirdre Bolton, a former Bloomberg anchor.

Bartiromo will have to land some pretty serious and exclusive interviews to move the needle. According to Nielsen data, CNBC’s “Squawk Box” lured an average viewership of 177,000 in 2013 between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. in 2013, while “Squawk On The Street” reached an average viewership of 229,000 between 9:30 a.m. and 10 a..m. Meantime, Nielsen data said “Imus” broadcast between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. in 2013 reached an average of 111,000 viewers, while 2013 broadcasts of “Varney” between 9:30 a.m .and 10 a.m. reached an average of 95,000 viewers.

Her intent is to have “dealmakers” on the show who are intimately involved with the headlines of the day. Several times during the interview, she suggests that top executives are frustrated with news programs that have five or six people on the screen all talking at once, or business-news shows that place an emphasis on “sound bites” and “quick-buck type things.” The goal, she said, is not to keep the entirely of the Imus audience that precedes her program, but to make FBN more of a must-see for a specialized and knowledgeable audience. “We need more depth,” she said.

Bartiromo said she was looking for a chance to grow after working for 20 years at CNBC, and the chance to help FBN grow was “an adventure:” she could not pass up. The new job comes with another draw: Bartiromo will join the Sunday-talk fray with a new show at FBN sister Fox News Channel. Set to air at 10 a.m. on Sundays sometime by the end of the first quarter – possibly as soon as a month after “Opening Bell” debuts.

“I’d like to get business people into the conversation on a Sunday,” Bartiromo said. “Very rarely do you see anybody connecting the dots about the economy.” Luring the people who want such perspective on Sundays and during the week will prove critical to the success of both of her new programs.

Updated 7:56 AM PT

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