Fox Biz seeks popularity in populism

Lots of Americans own stocks or small businesses, but even more Americans pay taxes. And in that simple fact, Fox Business Network sees an opportunity for accomplishing the goal it was created for: overtaking CNBC as the No. 1 business network.

Launched in October 2007, FBN struggled early on to translate its promise to serve "Main Street, not Wall Street" into a clear, logical identity -- a struggle that's been reflected in ratings so low, the network still won't talk about them. But last fall's economic meltdown, and the government's response to it, have finally given Fox a raison d'etre: speaking for those who worry that the cure to the financial crisis might be worse than the disease. Hence this week's programming theme, Red Ink Week, "a full five days of coverage dedicated to uncovering how the government is spending taxpayers' money and how that will affect us in the future," as an FBN press release puts it.

"Americans have bailout fatigue," explains FBN anchor Cheryl Casone. "They're tired of watching taxpayer money go to private business."

With its unabashedly populist tone, Red Ink Week is clearly an attempt to tap into some of the same anger that fueled April's tax-day "Tea Party" protests -- protests that Fox is careful to insist it played no role in organizing, even if its wall-to-wall coverage did have the effect of promoting them and boosting turnout. The tea parties were a ratings hit for Fox News, and it's likely they had a similar effect on Fox Business. And, while Casone says they weren't the inspiration for Red Ink Week -- "We've been covering this for months," she says -- it's obvious the network believes it has discovered its sweet spot at last.

Of course, FBN doesn't have a monopoly on anger. It was a CNBC correspondent, Rick Santelli, who fired the opening shot of the anti-bailout revolt with his on-air rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile exchange. But whereas CNBC's personalities lambast the Obama Administration and its "communist" policies for their supposedly dampening effect on big business, Fox Business is articulating the anger of the gas-station owner who cares about macroeconomics chiefly insofar as it relates to how big a check he'll owe the U.S. Treasury come next April 15.

Playing to the factory floor instead of the C-suite is unlikely ever to net Fox Business the kind of ultra-premium ad rates that make CNBC such a big cash generator for GE despite its relatively modest audience. But if Rupert Murdoch's goal is own the most-watched business channel, period, the broad-brush populism of Red Ink Week might be a start.

"We're just giving viewers what they want," says Casone. "The reason I got into business news was to help the people."
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