Comcast's CNBC faces a big threat from Fox Business Network

Fox Business Network anchor Stuart Varney (left), on the set of his show Varney & Company at the 21st Century Headquarters in New York, gets helps with his microphone.

NEW YORK — When Comcast Corp. bought NBCUniversal in 2011, the deal came with the CNBC channel, which pioneered the business news format on cable television and dominated ratings in its field.

It doesn’t look as unassailable today, as rival Fox Business Network flogs its coverage of President Trump and adds tens of thousands of viewers.

The Fox cable network — launched a decade ago, and known for publicity stunts such as  simulcasting radio shock jock Don Imus — has beaten CNBC in total viewers during the key daytime stock-market hours over the last two quarters.

Trump has a lot to do with it, officials at both networks say as they snipe at each other over the viewing data. CNBC insists that Fox Business has morphed into a Breitbart-type cheerleader for Trump, riding the populist wave and sharing conservative Fox News viewers.

But Fox Business executives ask: How could they not cover Trump? As CNBC rode its traditional format, Fox adjusted its programming to focus on issues related to jobs and prosperity instead of obsessively tracking the market. It packed the daytime hours with former CNBC personalities, among them “Money Honey” Maria Bartiromo.

“To say it’s all smoke and mirrors, it’s all about Trump — what does that mean?” Bartiromo said about the criticism from her former employer. “Trump has put a fire under a lot of networks. People want to know what the president is saying. The question is, where are you listening to it?”

Fox Business vs. CNBC

Average quarterly weekday viewership from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., in thousands.
Staff Graphic

After “laddering up” (increasing) the audience during the presidential campaign, Fox Business garnered a household daytime audience of 207,000 viewers in the last three months of 2016, compared with 179,000 for CNBC, based on Nielsen data. It was Fox Business’s first quarterly win.

And the lead held into the first quarter of 2017: 212,000 viewers for Fox Business compared with 183,000 for CNBC.

CNBC, a highly profitable corner of Comcast’s cable-network empire, which also includes Bravo, USA, and E!, acknowledges the viewer gains at Fox Business and says its Trump-focused strategy has been brilliant. But it also dismisses Fox as no real threat.

Despite the word business in the Fox network's name, CNBC says, it doesn’t consider it a real competitor, because of Fox's steady diet of Obamacare-bashing and political commentary, compared with CNBC's CEO interviews and market-moving exclusives.

In its view, Bloomberg TV — which is not rated by Nielsen — is its closest competitor. 

And as for Nielsen ratings, CNBC doesn’t use them. They miss viewers who watch outside their homes — in corporate suites, on trading floors, and at country clubs, hotels, and fitness centers, network officials say. CNBC bases its audience awareness on a survey by the Ipsos research firm showing that 17 million affluent Americans — those with household incomes over $100,000 — watched CNBC over a seven-day period, roughly double Fox's number.    

CNBC spokesman Brian W. Steel said Wednesday that the network was the "number-one source for business news and information across all platforms." Globally, CNBC's "business and general-interest money content is far and away the largest, reaching more than 270 million adults per month and growing," he added. 

This cable-network fight might seem much ado about nothing. CNBC and Fox Business together draw about 400,000 daytime viewers from the roughly 100 million U.S. pay-TV households.  

But it’s a lucrative niche, with about $1 billion in revenue — $735 million for CNBC and $260 million for Fox Business — and high profit margins, according to research firm SNL Kagan. Both networks charge monthly per-subscriber fees to cable-TV and satellite-TV distributors, such as Comcast or DirecTV, to carry the channels.

In addition, both reach audiences interested in the economy and the stock market — and those viewers command premium ad rates, though CNBC hints that advertisers who think they are buying affluent business viewers at Fox Business may be buying a more downscale political audience instead.

Dominick Rossi, Fox Business vice president for eastern sales, said Nielsen research puts the network in the top 10 cable networks for median household income.

The mood seems giddy at Fox Business. On Monday on the set, in a skyscraper north of Times Square, anchor Stuart Varney, a 68-year-old Brit who has lived in the United States for decades, had a lively conversation going about Trump, taxes, the border wall, the stock market, and a new Netflix series.

After his 9 a.m.-to-noon Varney & Co. program, the anchor — who also has held on-air jobs in New York with CNN and CNBC — reflected on Fox's surge. It's a “different product” from CNBC, he said, and is aimed at ordinary Americans. “We have not stolen their audience,” Varney said of CNBC. “We have built a new audience.”

Fox Business was launched in 2007 in about 30 million pay-TV homes. But it couldn’t seem to find a market. By 2014, the network was foundering with a dismal daytime audience of 42,000.

Fox recommitted to business news and ousted network head Kevin Magee. The next year, Imus was let go. The network hired Bartiromo from CNBC and beefed up its daytime schedule, inserting Varney, Neil Cavuto, and Trish Regan into slots. Lou Dobbs stayed in the 7 p.m. slot.

In November 2015, Fox Business hosted a GOP debate, a big boost for audience awareness. Fox Business now says it beats CNBC on “market-moving days,” such as when the Dow Jones industrial average crosses 20,000 and 21,000. It says it also won the day of the Snap Inc. IPO. Now competing with CNBC, Bartiomo recently interviewed Blackrock CEO Larry Fink and IBM top executive Ginni Rometty on her pre-market Fox Business show.

Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland and a frequent guest on Fox Business, said, “They cover business and other stuff. There is more verve to it. There is more color.”

Fox Business’ surge has been a welcome distraction for parent 21st Century Fox, which is struggling with the fallout of the sexual-harassment claims against former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and former executive Roger Ailes.

Millions of dollars have been paid to women to settle the claims. And just last week, 11 current and former Fox News employees filed a class action lawsuit in New York state alleging racial discrimination.

Gary Schreier, senior vice president of programming at Fox Business, tunes the TVs to Fox Business, CNBC, and Bloomberg TV in his cluttered 11th-floor office. He was with Fox News when it unseated CNN as the No. 1 general-news cable channel. People didn’t think Fox could beat the once-dominant news leader either, he noted.

“There is nothing more democratic than a [TV] remote,” he said.