Fox Business bets the mortgage

Network reaching out to investors, consumers

With the nation teetering on the brink of an economic downturn, News Corp. is launching Fox Business Network in complicated times.

But Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes are betting that a Main Street vs. Wall Street approach to business — with a chunk of primetime devoted to the maxed-out Discover Card set — might strike a chord for their fledgling network, which bows Oct. 15.

The approach, appealing to the American consumer as well as the professional investor, has been tried before, notably by CNNfn, which didn’t survive the dot-com crash. The question is, can Fox Business take on CNBC and entertain Main Street in these uncertain times?

NYSE traders are abuzz over the studio the network is building over the historic trading floor. But one week before its launch, the game of predicting how Ailes intends to interpret business for the masses has taken on an aspect of media-world Kremlin-watching.

Madison Avenue got a pitch but no specifics on the network,churning the rumor mill into overdrive ahead of the channel’s Oct. 15 debut. What former CNBC personalities will land there? Would Ailes really launch a show titled “The Bear Cave” stocked with Wall Street pessimists?

Even the notion that Ailes didn’t want to launch a new business channel in the first place — a notion widely accepted by the media — seems like classic Ailesian misdirection.

One thing is certain: No one will be watching closer than CNBC, whose employees have been pouring over the slick promos rolled out last week at foxbusiness.com.

The site, built around video from the net’s three main stars, Neil Cavuto, Alexis Glick and David Asman, was trademark Fox.

Asman took the first shot at the competition: “Nine times out of 10, when you listen to another channel on TV talk about business, they use a kind of claptrap terminology, or they use a kind of lingo that’s unapproachable by the man on the street,” Asman said in a clip. Translation: CNBC and Bloomberg TV are for finance geeks. We’re for the masses.

It’s an approach that’s been tried before — at CNNfn, and to an extent at CNBC, where anchors were once instructed to ditch the finance jargon — “the Fed” for example — but found they ended up talking down to their core aud of finance professionals.

On the programming side, the few hints of what FBN will look like include the announced hiring of Nashville-based radio personal finance guru Dave Ramsey, a sign that FBN will devote at least part of its primetime sked to checkbook issues. As-yet unannounced is Sacramento radio host Tom Sullivan, who will co-anchor the mornings for FBN, likely with “Today” veteran Glick.

Perhaps the biggest question is where managing editor Cavuto lands on the schedule. Sources say he’ll anchor a separate show for FBN, in addition to “Your World With Neil Cavuto” on Fox News.

Media buyers didn’t seem to mind FBN’s veil of secrecy. Many say that given Ailes’ track record, they feel confident placing a blind bet.

“I would never bet against him after seeing what they’ve done with Fox Business Channel,” says Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast at Carat USA. “CNBC is still the 800-pound gorilla, but it’s not like there isn’t space for two.”

With 34 million subs to start, the first meaningful ratings race for FBN could be New York, the most important market for any business network. Fox Business has analog carriage on Time Warner, which serves Manhattan, but not Cablevision, the area’s largest carrier, which serves the other boroughs and affluent suburbs.

FBN bows with some advantages, most derived from Fox News, including the fact that FNC already airs the top six business news shows on cable. Those shows, including “Cavuto on Business,” will stay at FNC.

In CNBC’s favor: full distribution, great channel positions and 14 of the 15 most affluent shows. “We’re for wealthy people and people who aspire to be wealthy,” says prexy Mark Hoffman.

If it follows the Fox News formula, FBN will build hours around stars who become appointment viewing, independent of whatever is happening in the news cycle.

“There are a real dearth of personalities in business news,” says Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media.

For its part, CNBC has certainly tried to fill that void, promoting a new generation of personalites like Erin Burnett and Dylan Ratigan to showcase alongside vets Jim Cramer and Maria Bartiromo.