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For years, the Fox Business Channel has existed primarily as a subject of cocktail party chatter, as media executives and journalists speculated about Rupert Murdoch’s secret plans to launch an all-business cable network.
The mystery receded last month when News Corp revealed that it had secured distribution for such a network in the vital New York market. Then on Thursday, Mr Murdoch not only confirmed that Fox Business would launch in the fourth quarter but also offered a few hints about its style.
“We want to be more business-friendly,” he said, accusing CNBC, the dominant business news network, of taking a negative tone. “They leap into every scandal,” he said.
While anyone who has watched the General Electric-owned network would suggest otherwise, the essential questions remain about the Fox Business Channel: can it work, and if so, how?
Andrew Tyndall, editor of the Tyndall Report, a newsletter that covers the cable news business, is a sceptic. “It just doesn’t look like the audience is big enough or CNBC is vulnerable enough,” he said.
Time Warner’s decision in late 2004 to pull the plug on CNNfn, its financial news network, would appear to endorse that view.
But others, such as Andrew Heyward, former head of CBS News and now a senior adviser at Marketspace, a media consultancy, argue that it would be foolish to underestimate Mr Murdoch and Roger Ailes, his television chief, given their track record.
A decade ago, they were widely dismissed when they proposed launching a 24-hour news channel to compete with CNN and MSNBC. Mr Heyward said: “It would have been easy to say it was a saturated market. But Fox News went ahead, and it was a big success.”
He also points out that Fox news’ flagship business programme, Your World with Neil Cavuto, is already top-rated in its time-slot.
One person who is bullish about Fox’s prospects is John Bollinger, who worked at the Financial News Network, one of the genre’s pioneers.
“I think there’s absolutely room for another business channel,” Mr Bollinger said.
The fate of the Fox Business Channel could alter the business television landscape, where audiences and companies have turned almost exclusively to CNBC with an occasional nod at Bloomberg Television.
Yet it could also have implications inside the News Corp empire.
At the moment, Mr Ailes is struggling to right his last venture, MyNetwork, a television network that is bleeding $10m a month. Mr Ailes is also facing a double-digit ratings decline at Fox News, although the network still handily beats the competition.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Ailes said he had plenty of energy to devote to the project, and denied rumours that he had ever doubted its prospects.
“I did not want to do it until we had at least 30m homes. I was dragging my feet until we had the distribution piece,” he said.
Mr Ailes also suggested that the network would focus on retail investors worried about their financial security as opposed to top traders.
One thing in Fox’s favour is the muscle of News Corp. Mr Ailes will be able to minimise start-up costs by sharing studio and production facilities with Fox News.
In the near term, at least, News Corp should also benefit from a buoyant stock market, which tends to drum up audiences for business news.
Still, some media executives believe Mr Ailes will be limited in his options. When creating Fox News, the former Republican consultant was able to locate a broad audience that was unhappy with the traditional networks and CNN.
Mr Murdoch’s comments notwithstanding, it is unclear if a similar under-served audience exists in the business world.
“I don’t know if there are that many ways to look at the business world, and if there is a vacuum like there was in the news business,” said Jason Maltby, president of national broadcast advertising at Mindshare North America.
One thing seems clear: Having watched Mr Ailes ambush CNN, CNBC will not be taken by surprise. It launched a new broadband website in December featuring thousands of video clips and tools that allow users to model their stock portfolios. CNBC’s ratings are at an all-time high, helping the network to earn more than $275m in 2006, its best performance ever.
“Bring it on!” said a CNBC spokesman.
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