Fox Business Wants To Maximize Spotlight From Republican Debate

When Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo surface on Fox Business Network Tuesday night, they will do so with a considerable burden on their shoulders.

The pair must demonstrate their mettle against a horde of cantankerous Republican candidates for President, who will hold forth at the next primary debate in Milwaukee on November 10 at 9 p.m. eastern. And they must also mark a solid step forward for the cable network that is using the publicity accorded the event to garner attention.

“For a lot of people, this is going to be their first exposure to Fox Business,” said Cavuto, a veteran of the network and its sister outlet, Fox News Channel. “We are obviously cognizant of that and want to make sure we make a very good impression. Part of making a good impression is asking smart, thoughtful questions, doing our homework, dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, and making sure that whatever we do shows that we take everything we do very seriously and that we are no-nonsense about it.”

Fox Business Network has approximately 82 million subscribers, according to market-research firm SNL Kagan, compared with 30 million when it launched in 2007. In a sign the 21st Century Fox-owned outlet is hoping to capitalize on its exposure, Fox Business has arranged with a coterie of the nation’s small and medium-sized cable distributors to make the network available to customers who do not already have access to it during the debates.

The timing of the debate works in FBN’s favor. Candidates have been quizzed on everything from their finances to their qualifications, but one subject has so far eluded serious grilling: Their economic vision. “We haven’t seen a real focus on the economic issues that are so important to viewers, which is why I feel this is such a big opportunity,” said Bartiromo. “This is what we do.”

To that end, Bartiromo, who joined Fox Business from CNBC in January of 2014, has been studying everything from the positions the campaigns have staked out on economic issues and mapping out follow-up questions to potential responses. “I want to make sure I’m clear on where they stand on things like jobs and economic plans, trade and the deficit,” she explained. “This is my sector.”

It’s no secret that Fox Business is hoping to make strides against CNBC, which has more subscribers and generates more ad revenue on an annual basis, according to the Kagan data. There appears to be an opening: CNBC’s recent broadcast of a debate among Republican candidates generated controversy. Some questions were seen as inflammatory, and the Republican National Committee has told NBC News it was suspending a planned debate slated to air in February on NBC and Telemundo in direct reaction to the event.

NBC News has said it’s working “in good faith” to resolve the situation. CNBC said its moderators – John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla – simply asked tough questions.

Fox Business has more original programming to promote these days. The arrival of Wall Street journalism veteran Bartiromo in 2014 promoted a reshuffling of its daily lineup that debuted in June: No more broadcasts of Don Imus’ radio program; a new 5 a.m. program; Bartiromo on screen for three hours between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.; a two hour program anchored by Cavuto between noon and 2 p.m.; and the debut of Trish Regan, who has held forth at Bloomberg and CNBC (and will co-moderate with Sandra Smith an “undercard” debate at 7 p.m.). Fox Business tends to rely on veteran anchors who have built up perspective over the years: Stuart Varney, Liz Claman and Melissa Francis are familiar to viewers who have tracked the markets via CNBC and CNN.

For debate night, the network has added a few new twists. Candidates will have more time to make their case: 90 seconds to answer questions and 60 seconds to respond to something, if warranted, as opposed to the 60 second/30 second rule that has often been the norm. Candidates, however, will not make opening statements. Gerard Baker, editor of The Wall Street Journal, part of 21st Century Fox sister News Corp., will also moderate the event.

Cavuto and Bartiromo want to get specifics out of the candidates regarding the economy. “It’s one thing to talk in platitudes about ‘getting America working’ and ‘we should have better jobs,’” said Cavuto. “That’s sort of like arguing for sunny days.” He intends to tease out  details for which voters can then hold the candidates accountable.

Both have trod this ground in the past. Cavuto recalled pushing Newt Gingrich to answer a question that he largely sidestepped in 2011 when Fox News Channel presented a debate among candidates. Bartiromo also remembered grappling with a peevish Gingirch in late 2011 and being present when then-Texas Governor Rick Perry slipped and forgot the third of a list of three government agencies he thought needed to be cut.

This time around, Bartiromo and Cavuto say they are mindful of their role as a proxy for the average voter. They need to get answers that viewers don’t have “Look at this field: Who out there can beat Hillary Clinton? Who has the goods? Who has the right plan to actually move the needle for my family?” said Bartiromo. “I’ll be the liaison to help voters better understand the issues so they can make the informed decision.”

If part of that decision means tuning in more regularly to Fox Business Network, the duo will have done more than their share.

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