advice from a fake consultant

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Markets Are...Well, We're Watching Them Closely, Or, Fox Business News Debuts

The news addicted have for some time had the habit of keeping CNBC on one of their monitors throughout the day; and those who follow news professionally will keep more than one of the channels they offer on multiple screens, so as to better track the activities of business markets around the world.

Many in the community of viewers are highly wealthy, highly influential...and likely the best demographic group available to advertisers anywhere outside of a polo match.

In an effort to tap into the wealth of the “polo crowd”, Fox Business has launched its rhetorical yacht into the media ocean, and we’ll compare the two channels today.

For the purposes of our discussion, I’m going to be comparing just the two flagship channels: Newscorp’s Fox Business channel, and NBC/Universal’s CNBC. There are additional international channels CNBC offers, but today our conversation will revolve around these two “brands”.

You do not have to watch the Fox Business channel long before it becomes evident that they are not seeking the same viewers as CNBC. To be more specific, it appears the Fox channel is targeting relatively unsophisticated “amateur” investors, as opposed to the highly sophisticated audience that CNBC appears to be targeting.

Evidence of this is found in the type of financial information each chooses to disseminate. For example, Fox Business does not report any information beyond stock prices and index averages during the day (including its proprietary “Fox 50” average). I did not observe any data being reported regarding interest rates on Treasury issues, no data on commodity prices, and no information on foreign exchange throughout the trading day.

After the markets closed, the Fox graphic only displayed the Dow Jones 30 Industrials Average, the S & P, and the NASDAQ, as opposed to CNBC, which offered a rolling graphic that shows the major US market indexes, gold, silver, oil, RBOB, 2-, 10-, and 30-year Treasuries, and on and on.

A visit to the websites confirms this difference in focus. CNBC’s site places considerable emphasis in reporting “technical” market data, but at the Fox site there was no evidence of reporting on things as basic as daily interest rate movements.

The other major difference you quickly note is the lack of charting. Every time you see discussion of a “product” on CNBC the screen fills with a chart and data showing the current price and relevant trends. The “talking head” will often move through several charts in a segment to graphically compare across an industry, or over a period of time. This almost never occurs at Fox, and in fact I only noted one chart over the several hours I spent today doing the “flip between” comparison.

Fox also offers a more “lifestyle” oriented broadcast-for example, much of today’s field reporting was based around visits by the reporter to several luxury goods shops in Chicago, with the goal of demonstrating that sales of high-end shoes and chocolate are as yet unaffected by the potentially impending recession. (It is fair to report that CNBC has also taken such a tack in the past, including “on the road” reports from several cities recently.)

An even more fundamental divide is found in the combination of two issues-the personalities of the presenters; and the manner in which set and “off-set” are integrated-or not-on both broadcasts.

Fox offers the more traditional “anchors at a desk” format, supplemented by cutaways to panels and a newsroom “reader/analyst” who fills in stories along with the anchor. There are, additionally, cutaways to reporters on the New York Stock Exchange floor, but this seems to take up less than five minutes an hour.

And how I feel for poor Liz Clayman.

She moved from CNBC to Fox Business, and my suspicion is that she questions that decision daily. As CNBC was discussing the impact of the FOMC’s recent interest rate cuts measured against the new employment numbers, Clayman was discussing Singapore Airline’s recent difficulties in convincing First-Class passengers on the new A-380 that joining the “Mile High Club” is inappropriate, despite the addition of private bedroom suites featuring double beds to the new aircraft’s cabin.

Her co-anchor was lost in peals of laughter during the entire story (and the panel discussion that followed), and, to be frank, it’s hard not to imagine that this is less of a news channel and more of a TV show spin-off that’s waiting for Ricky Gervais to come in and finish off the effect.

CNBC offers a far different look and feel, with shows being anchored from an anchor desk, cubicles, and finally directly from the floor during the last hour of the day. Much of the broadcast day (perhaps as much as 25%) originated directly from the floors of the NYSE and other Exchanges as well, including the Chicago Board of Trade’s open outcry pits.

The network has considerable history, and presenters such as Joe Kernan, Maria Bartaromo, David Faber and Mark Haines have become financial “celebrities” in their own right. This has raised questions in the past, and a regular viewer might wonder if the presenters are as much network news representatives as they are cheerleaders for the markets.

The experts are of a far higher caliber as well, including the slightly-right-of-Karl-Rove Lawrence Kudlow and other former Fed Board of Governors members, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, tons of investment bankers, brokers, traders, and whoever else can be snatched up for an interview.

And then there’s Cramer.

CNBC has a show called “Mad Money” starring the aforementioned Jim Cramer, which, to be kind, is best described as strategic investment advice for the ADD generation. Tons of useful (and sometimes self-admittedly erroneous) information presented at a machine-gun pace, with wacky hilarity provided by props, sound effects, and the rather quirky Cramer himself.

As of this moment, the equivalent show on Fox Business seems to be "The Dave Ramsey Show", a program that can be described as more of a personal finance show, where listeners call in for advice like “pay off the credit cards first” or “I would find a way to keep the dog” which appeared to be the answer to a question relating to whether an expensive dog should be kept or sold.

Some additional notes: Stewart Varney has migrated from CNN, and in an oddly Foxian quirk, the other “American” anchors make fun of his (Brit) accent...and, perhaps less oddly, Varney then proceeded to make fun (and not in a particularly friendly way) of the Australian reporter’s accent that was in the cutaway pitching the next story-literally changing his own voice to mimic her voice. (To those of you who are Scot, or Irish, or Welsh, or Australian, for that matter, a native of India, I can now say that I’ve had a glimpse of a part of your culture I never fully understood before...and it wasn’t pretty.)

There is also a question of the ethical approach each network takes.

CNBC functions in an environment that acts as though it is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission: guests are queried as to their ownership interests in the stocks they pitch; questions are asked when guests offer analysis (“does your company offer services to company XYZ?”), and news about General Electric is accompanied by the statement that “GE is the parent company of this network”.

Fox Business takes a different approach. A visit to their website shows the top two stocks on their “Watchlist” are Newscorp and Dow Jones & Company-one the parent company of Fox, the other the company’s most important recent acquisition. No disclosure of these relationships are offered at the site.

And then there’s the matter of the edited reviews.

Those who follow Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” will recall Novenber 1st's "Worst Person In The World" describing how Fox had distributed a promotional brochure with negative reviews edited to make them appear positive. My favorite: the Toronto Globe and Mail’s assessment that Fox had changed business news...and that they should change it back. As you’ll recall, the Fox brochure contained an edited version of the review that did not contain the admonition to “change it back”.

Believe it or not, I witnessed Fox Business run a spot showing the same edited review-even after they were called on it.

Which bring us to another interesting point for the future: CNBC, several years ago, created a close relationship with Dow Jones, and Dow Jones reporters have forged a long-term relationship with the CNBC audience. The presence of each so closely intertwined with the other has given CNBC increased credibility and Dow Jones an important daily audience all day long...instead of just through the paper before the work day.

Fox is attempting to build the same relationship by linking to Forbes (who is, ironically, partially owned by the singer Bono), but the question for the future is: will the recent acquisition of Dow Jones by Fox change this relationship...and will the evidence of a lower ethical standard at Fox Business translate into the lowering of ethical standards at Dow Jones?

Fox is hoping to make a two-pronged approach into the serious business market with the business channel and their ownership of “The Wall Street Journal”; but if the Fox Business channel is the template by which that is to be done, it would suggest that the paper will either be less influential in the future with its current audience, or that it might need to change its focus from the business paper of record to the personal finance daily...a sort of Money Magazine meets Robb Report in newsprint form.

As I write this, both networks are out of their broadcast days, and oddly enough, both are running the exact same infomercial in sync...meaning it is possible to flip from one channel to the other seamlessly and watch the same program-which may be more of a commentary on American television than either network cares to admit.

So here we are: while CNBC represents the “traditional” style of market news as they and competitor Bloomberg view things, the Fox Business channel has come along to offer a new vision, the future of a major acquisition is at stake, and either Fox will be facing trouble ahead...or “Happy Hour” might indeed be the financial wave, waiting to be caught by market surfers disaffected by the previous norm.

In closing, a final word about the title of today’s story: it was an exact quote from a Fox Business “anchor” who was attempting to tell the viewers what the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up to as he was leading out to a commercial.

And it seemed to be allegorical for the entire Fox Business experience...a bit uncertain, a bit uncomfortable, and a bit more like “Fox and Friends” than real business news.

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