CNBC preps for Fox rival

Web gearing up for rivalry with upstart 24-hour news net

NBC Universal topper Bob Wright has three words for Rupert Murdoch, who is planning a business channel, a competitor to CNBC: “Bring it on.”

In the wake of a management shakeup at the beleaguered cabler, Wright acknowledged that CNBC has much work to do in the months before Fox launches its own 24-hour business news net.

“We have to pick up the pace now with Fox coming along,” he said. “They’ll be tough, but we’re preparing.”

Nine months after the merger between Universal and the Peacock, longtime NBC topper Wright told a McGraw-Hill media conference that he’s working to build trust between the two companies, a challenge for some on the U side who’ve seen their film, cable and theme parks empire bought and sold several times over the past decade.

Wright said he’s also learned a thing or two about Hollywood in his efforts to hold the line on production costs.

“The producers know as much about the finances as I do,” he said. “What you have to understand is who’s financing it, because often the people who sound most knowledgeable aren’t putting any money in.”

Seamless transfer

Despite NBC’s dramatic fall from first to third in the ratings, Wright said the network has accomplished much since the merger — principally, the seamless replacement of Tom Brokaw with Brian Williams on “Nightly News.”

“I think this is the most significant marketing achievement since I’ve been here,” he said. “You take a 50-year-old show, and Tom who’d been there for 20 years. It was like launching a new product and replacing it with another, like replacing Coke with New Coke. But we pulled it off, and now (William’s) ratings are ahead of Tom’s.”

Wright then issued some barbs at his news competition. On CBS: “They took a different approach — destroy the franchise and then you have tremendous upside.” On ABC: “Who knows what they’re doing.” On Fox: “On our worst day ‘Nightly’ is still three to four times their audience. On our worst day!”

The young demos have never watched news, but as the older population grows, he believes the evening news is an institution that’s here to stay.

“Our issue is not to get 20-year-olds to watch Brian (Williams),” he said. “It’s to get 40-year-olds to watch Brian and to get 30-year-olds thinking about it.”

‘Apprentice’ a good thing

In primetime, Wright said he’s looking forward to Martha Stewart’s participation in “The Apprentice,” which he believes will revitalize the franchise, not fatigue it.

Wright addressed the coming competition from Fox at a time when CNBC is trying to find its sea legs in a choppy news environment.

CNBC’s troubles, he said, have more to do with consolidation in financial services — decreasing the advertiser pool — than with the at-home audience erosion measured by Nielsen Media Research.

What’s more, the business stories aren’t as compelling for consumers as they once were, which is a challenge for everyone. “We have new competition in Fox and the marketplace isn’t that exciting,” he said.