In Recession, Money Honeys Get Company From Grumpy Old Dudes

But before FBN could achieve world domination (or the lesser ambition of putting up ratings anywhere close to those of rival CNBC), the real estate bubble burst. The economy crashed. And suddenly FBN executives found themselves holding a long position on young, sunny TV talent amid a tanking economy. What is a financial news network to do in a bear market for money honeys?

 

HISTORICALLY, BUSINESS REPORTING tends to be somewhat bipolar, with the mood swinging wildly depending on the state of the economy. Josh Quittner, the Time columnist and managing editor of On magazine, recently told The Observer that business news always travels between two extreme poles—celebrity making (during boom times) and hard-core service journalism (during busts). Throughout the dot-com era, said Mr. Quittner, you could slap the face of any young tech entrepreneur on the cover of your magazine, and people would scoop it up. Everyone is a genius until everyone goes broke.

“It’s understandable that when Fox launched two years ago in a more optimistic time with a little bit more sizzle in the economy, they were willing to take more chances and put attractive young faces on TV,” said Mr. Quittner. “That’s not what works during downtimes. Then, the opposite works.”

In recessions, business consumers want sage knowledge, advice, expertise and experience. Grizzled wisdom becomes more attractive than tenderfooted exuberance. “People are looking for a way out,” said Mr. Quittner. “They’re not buying, say, business magazines for the crossword puzzles or the pictures of pretty girls. They buy it because they want to make money. It’s very straightforward. What works is the opposite of sexy.”

In recent months, in a series of high-profile moves, Fox Business executives have seemingly embraced that concept: the opposite of sexy.

First, they added Don Imus, the resurrected radio host with no real expertise in business but with a loyal following of fans. Then, last month, they hired John Stossel, the 62-year-old investigative correspondent with a libertarian bent, away from his longtime home at ABC News. And recently, according to The New York Times, Lou Dobbs, the 64-year-old CNN anchor, was seen dining with Mr. Ailes, feeding speculation that he also will eventually join FBN. (The last opinionated anchor from the Time Warner Center who was reported to be seen dining with Mr. Ailes was Glenn Beck—who, shortly thereafter, joined Fox News.)

If Ms. Smith, Connell McShane, and Jenna Lee are a type, so too are Mr. Imus, Mr. Stossel and Mr. Dobbs. To their fans, they are lovable grouches who covey a reassuring sense of hard-earned insight. If life has made them a touch cranky, it has also made them skeptical of snake-oil hustlers, tough on government scoundrels and unafraid of picking fights. They are 60-somethings, with independent streaks, who have seen bad times and fought their way through.

Still, the advent of the high-profile, elder libertarian statesman at FBN provides a supplement to the money honeys, not a replacement. When Mr. Imus’ show debuted in October, two of the partially displaced anchors, Ms. Lee and Mr. McShane (both young, talented and easy on the eyes), didn’t disappear. They, along with Ms. Smith, began providing business updates on Imus in the Morning. And when in November of 2008, in the wake of the imploding economy, FBN tweaked its 5 p.m. after-market bar-side chatfest, Happy Hour, they didn’t get rid of the young, attractive co-hosts, Rebecca Diamond and Cody Willard. They simply added a seasoned chaperon: Eric Bolling, an older Wall Street veteran, nicknamed “the Admiral.”

In other words, even in a crap economy, the bulk of financial reporting on TV is destined to remain in the hands of beautiful people. “There are still going to be plenty of young guys at Fox and CNBC who are running around saying the bulls are running loose, and everything is going right, and the Dow is above 10,000, and don’t get pissed at Goldman Sachs, those guys rule!” former CNN producer and TV critic Chez Pazienza recently told The Observer. “But no matter how hard you push that, there are also going to be people who are watching who are out of work. You have to balance that out.”

Call it a market correction—and one that is still in progress, as both sides of the equation get to know one another. At one point on Thursday morning, Mr. Imus said that he had been watching FBN the previous day at the very moment when the Dow topped 10,000. “Who is the woman who’s down there on the floor for us?” said Mr. Imus.

“Our very fine reporter Nicole Petallides,” answered Ms. Smith.

“She is good,” said Mr. Imus. “Well, I was watching all of them. I forget who was on. Liz or somebody was on. It was all very exciting.”

fgillette@observer.com