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CNBC glitzes up for business-news war

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Tess Vigeland: Regular watchers of CNBC may have noticed a few changes lately. Maybe the graphics seem a little splashier, the anchors and commentators a little more jazzed up.

It's no accident. CNBC is gearing up for the arrival of a new kid in town. Fox is launching its own business channel in mid-October. And as Marketplace's Amy Scott reports, the fight is already getting ugly.


Amy Scott: The trading floor at BMO Capital Markets is typical. Traders hunch over Bloomberg and Reuters terminals. Squawkboxes broadcast the hum from other trading floors around the globe. And the flat-screen TVs overhead are almost always tuned to one channel: CNBC.

But as of October 15, Owen Lynch expects that to change. He's BMO's head of equities trading in the U.S., and he plans to make room for Fox's new business channel.

Owen Lynch: You can count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 televisions in this trading room. My guess is, you know, we'll probably do, probably go 50-50.

Statements like that have gotta make CNBC executives' blood run cold. The network is one of parent company NBC Universal's most profitable units. It made more than $300 million last year, according to research firm SNL Kagan.

SNL analyst Derek Baine says because CNBC is a near monopoly, it can charge advertisers premium rates and cable operators top license fees. Baine says when Fox offers those operators an alternative, CNBC will lose some of its leverage.

Derek Baine: It's not like, you know, next year the bottom is gonna fall out. But I think as these contracts come up for renewal, you know, it's unlikely that they would get any kind of an increase in excess of maybe inflation.

The official line from CNBC is "bring on the competition." The network is rolling out the big guns. A new ad campaign features prominent CEOs, like Mel Karmazin of Sirius Satellite Radio.

Mel Karmazin: I am American business. I watch CNBC.

One CNBC staffer who didn't want to be named says these days, every decision at the network is made with Fox in mind.

Porter Bibb invests in media companies at the private bank Mediatech Capital Partners. He says those decisions include spicing up the programming.

Porter Bibb: They're doing a lot of girding of the loins.

MBA Challenges: Which family controls the Washington Post company?

Bibb: They've got MBA challenges, using the best business schools in the country competing against each other in a financial quiz show.

MBA Challenges: What have you got? Graham Family. That is correct, Yale.

Bibb: You've got Jim Cramer, with his flamboyant style of stock picks.

Jim Cramer: And you know how bottoms got caused! No, no! Ah.

Bibb: They are trying to broaden the content and the presentation. And to a certain extent, it's working.

Some viewers might even say CNBC is starting to look a bit like Fox News.

Brian Stelter is former editor of industry blog TVnewser.com. He's now with the New York Times.

Brian Stelter: They definitely are reading from the Fox playbook in some ways. They've seen they can increase their ratings, especially among younger viewers, by having more personality and having more emotion in their coverage. And I think they'll continue doing that.

Some worry that the big loser in the ratings battle might be the journalism. On one hand, the networks will inevitably compete to break stories and score the best interviews.

But Fox has indicated it may be less aggressive than CNBC in chasing down stories that might put companies in a bad light. And as CNBC aims to appeal to a wider audience, equities trader Owen Lynch says he's found the network less useful as a news source.

With Fox parent company News Corp set to own the Wall Street Journal, Lynch hopes the new channel will target serious investors, like himself.

Lynch: My hope is that it's a little less gimmicky.

That may be wishful thinking. This is Rupert Murdoch we're talking about, owner of tabloids like Britain's Sun newspaper and the New York Post. And a more staid business channel already exists — Bloomberg Television reaches about 40 million U.S. subscribers. That's less than half CNBC's reach.

In New York, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.
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