Ted David has worked at CNBC since the business network launched in 1989. He likes his colleagues. Respects his bosses. Enjoys his current gig as a senior anchor of CNBC Business Radio. But when his contract with the network is up this spring, Mr. David will cast his eyes longingly in the direction of a fledging rival.
He would like someday soon to work at the Fox Business Network (FBN).
“I cannot imagine a more tempting possibility,” Mr. David told NYTV when reached by phone. A few days earlier, the industry-news blog TV Newser had reported rumors that Mr. David had been seen recently at the Fox News headquarters. Mr. David denied it, but was far from coy about his interest in FBN.
So why would a seasoned newsman, happy with his current job at the dominant national business network, contemplate jumping to an unproven rival? Mr. David spoke fondly of the long-ago days of CNBC’s infancy, and sounded eager to participate in another start-up. He added that he has “a lot of friends” at FBN, mentioning Alexis Glick, a former CNBC contributor who’s now FBN’s director of business news, and Kevin Magee, FBN’s executive vice president, with whom Mr. David used to work at ABC News. But mostly, Mr. David made clear, his interest in FBN, which is set to launch next month, comes down to one man:
Mr. Ailes served as president of CNBC for several years in the mid-90’s. He is generally credited with pumping up ratings, making the network profitable and instituting a successful strategy of packing prime time with talk shows. In 1996, he left CNBC to help launch Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. In the public imagination, Mr. Ailes’ success at Fox News has long since eclipsed his role in reviving CNBC. Not so among his former colleagues at CNBC.
“I watched him transform CNBC,” said Mr. David. “The guy is a genius. Before I leave this business I want to work for him again.”
To date, Fox execs have said little in public about their vision for the new network, nor about their strategy for taking on CNBC. Mr. David said he had heard of no specific plans for FBN. His attraction is based on faith. “Anybody who tries to second-guess Roger Ailes is nuts,” he said. “I’m sure whatever it is, it’s carefully thought out and he knows exactly what he’s doing. I know what kind of a great mind he has in terms of running television.”
In preparing for the challenge from FBN, CNBC has recently improved its on-air graphics, beefed up its online presence and cultivated a number of hit personality and talk shows—most notably, Mad Money With Jim Cramer.
Still, doubts persist about CNBC’s programming strategy. Not long ago, in an apparent attempt to break new ground, the network aired a game show of sorts: Fast Money MBA Challenge, in which teams of business-school students square off in Jeopardy-style competitions. But ratings were lackluster and did little to inspire much faith in the network brass’ ability to create hits.
“The general feeling is that Fox will crush CNBC,” one pessimistic CNBC staffer told NYTV. “Politics aside, Ailes is worshiped. The leadership here is in total denial.”
“That’s nonsense,” said a CNBC spokesperson. “Sounds like someone who hasn’t been in the newsroom.”
Whatever his overall strategy for the new channel, Mr. Ailes will have to grapple with one unanswered question: how best to capitalize on News Corp.’s recent purchase of The Wall Street Journal.
Over the past week, Fox executives named nine anchors for the new network. The group includes two staffers with long-standing ties to the paper. David Asman, who currently hosts Forbes on Fox, spent much of his career at The Journal. And another newly named anchor, Stuart Varney, hosted a show with The Journal’s editorial board prior to joining Fox in 2004.
For now, Dow Jones remains under contract in an exclusive agreement to provide business news to CNBC. But most observers expect News Corp. to find a way to capitalize on the Journal brand sooner rather than later. “There is no reason we could not have Wall Street Journal coverage of politics, international affairs, lifestyle, travel, you name it,” Mr. Murdoch said of FBN at a Goldman-Sachs-sponsored event on Tuesday, according Variety.
But most Journal staffers sounded none too thrilled about teaming with the new network. “It’s probably called FBN for a reason,” said one. “As in, ‘Fibbin’ …”
WHILE FOX EXECUTIVES SCRAMBLE TO to get their new network off the ground, another division of News Corp., HarperCollins, is about to publish a book about the process of … scrambling to get a new network off the ground.
In Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN, Susanne Daniels, currently president of the Lifetime network (and overseer of the hit series Army Wives) teams up with Cynthia Littleton, a veteran reporter for Variety (and writer of the TV blog On the Air), to tell the twisted story of the two-way race in the mid-90’s to establish a fifth broadcast television network, aimed at young adults.
“When I first pitched the book to HarperCollins, I pitched it as ‘The Fight for Fifth Place,’” said Ms. Daniels in a phone call with NYTV on Monday afternoon.
“It’s a great roller coaster ride, with an ending gift-wrapped in a bow,” said Ms. Littleton.
The authors are well placed to write the tale. Ms. Littleton covered the rise and eventual merger of the fledgling networks for Variety. At the same time, Ms. Daniels served as a creative executive for the WB during its formative years, and helped realize many of the network’s hit shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, and Felicity.
While the authors provide plenty of fascinating on-the-set reportage, they also answer the underlying business questions raised by the networks’ creation. Most notably: Why in the age of cable television and the Internet would two major American media conglomerates decide simultaneously to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcast television start-ups?
As Season Finale explains, the WB and UPN were born out of a regulatory change in Washington. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Reform Act, which effectively ended the decades-old restrictions that prevented ABC, NBC, and CBS from owning and producing the bulk of their own programming.
That caused the Hollywood television studios to worry that they would no longer have reliable distribution for their programming. The solution? They would create their own broadcast networks. Two studios, Warner Brothers (which was part of Time Warner) and Paramount (owned by Viacom) happened on the idea at roughly the same time. Thus the WB and UPN were born.
Ms. Daniels and Ms. Littleton first met years ago, as reporter and source. Around the summer of 2004, Ms. Daniels invited Ms. Littleton to breakfast in West Los Angeles to pitch her on co-writing a book. From the get-go, Ms. Littleton loved the idea.
Ms. Daniels said she reached out to Ms. Littleton in part because she needed someone who was respected in Hollywood and could convince UPN executives to tell their side of the story.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this with a partner is that I felt incredibly competitive with UPN,” said Ms. Daniels. “I felt that if I got a call one day from [UPN founding president and CEO] Lucie Salhany and she said, ‘I’m writing a book about this, would you talk to me?’ I’d think, um, no.”
As influences, the authors cite Three Blind Mice, by New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta, and two other books—Alex Ben Block’s OutFoxed: the Inside Story of America’s Fourth Television Network, and Brandon Tartikoff’s The Last Great Ride, a memoir of his tenure as the head of programming at NBC in the 80’s.
“What makes this book stand out, like Tartikoff’s book, is the first-person perspective,” said Ms. Littleton. “You really come away from this book knowing a lot about how the sausage is made.”