The much-awaited Fox Business Network launched on cable television last week. It was also the week in which the stock market took its worst drubbing in years. No matter. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. clearly plans a channel that is relentlessly upbeat, populist and with a broader viewer base than its competitors, Bloomberg and CNBC. Call it “The Joy of Capitalism.”
Given Murdoch’s recent purchase of The Wall Street Journal, some expected Fox Business Network to be The Journal with moving pictures. But the first week suggested that the creators of the new channel want something with much broader appeal: “Business for Dummies.”
The serious, staid Journal was not in evidence in FBN’s first week. No. The first week of the new channel owed little to established business broadcasting. It is closer to its stable mate, Fox News, than to any existing business news outlet on the air or in print. It is a mixture of personal finance and discussion with occasional recognition that the world of money is also a world of big money and big players—a feature on budget dating contrasted with an interview with Warren Buffet.
Murdoch has fathered FBN, but Roger Ailes has been its midwife. Ailes, a large man who worries about his weight, even as it increases, is a television genius. He understands that television is the most powerful medium, and that it is still evolving. It was an Ailes acolyte, Larry McCarthy, who created the deadly effective “Willie Horton” ad, which George H.W. Bush used in his 1988 presidential campaign to depict Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. And it was Ailes who created CNBC.
Ailes’s special talent is pace, or what TV people call “production values.” Fox television has high energy: It is all snap, crackle and pop–and very political. Ailes and Murdoch both understand than you can bond with an audience if you play to its prejudices. Murdoch learned that when he relaunched The Sun, a liberal London newspaper, as a right-wing, jingo and bellicose conservatism-for-the-working-class title. But not too socially conservative– it features a topless girl on Page Three most days.
In the media, there are no secrets: Your formula is there for everyone to see. The trick is in a blend of vision and execution. Ailes has been the master of executing Murdoch’s vision. Can Ailes pull it off one more time? Can he take business news to a wide audience at a time of stock market volatility; and, more of a challenge, at a time when most small investors are invested not directly in blue chips, but in mutual funds, through vehicles like 401ks or pension funds?
When I met Ailes, more than a decade ago, Fox News was still struggling against CNN, the market leader, which had just overhauled its Headline News. Ailes, who is affable, despite his reputation as ogre, was seeking to unseat the king. And he was relishing the fight.
Like many journalists, I did not know that Fox politics would carry the day. Indeed, the relentless right-winged formula at Fox not only carried the day, but also vanquished CNN, leaving it a confused corps of news, personalities and viewpoints.
I do know that if Fox starts losing in the business news ratings, Murdoch will turn away and try something else. He turned away from most of his U.S. newspaper and periodical holdings when they failed to perform to his expectations. Part of Murdoch’s success has been his courage to abandon mistakes. He does not fight wars of attrition.
While old-line media companies are trying to repel the forces of the Internet, Murdoch has bought in, laying down $580 million for MySpace. Rather than watching the birth of his business news baby, the wily Murdoch attended an Internet conference.
While I abhor what Murdoch has done to journalism (the politicization, the vulgarity and the trashing of objectivity), I am also lost in admiration. In Britain, he tamed the malicious and destructive trade unions by making an end-run around them. In movies, in book publishing and, above all, in television, Murdoch has been the greatest force of his time–if a little scary. Stay tuned. I will.