CNBC's war with Fox Business News

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CNBC's top executive shrugged off concerns that Rupert Murdoch's new business news channel would snatch away many viewers, though early ratings indicated CNBC's chokehold on the market was a little less tight.

From pushing ads in front of Fox Business Network viewers as it launched last week to blocking former contributors from appearing on the network's shows, CNBC looked to be taking News Corp's threat seriously, despite the dismissive talk.

"My initial thought is we're probably in different businesses," CNBC President Mark Hoffman told Reuters in a phone interview last week. "CNBC is focused on producing quality content for a quality audience, (who are the) most affluent and most educated in cable."

The question is whether that audience was smaller last week. According to Nielsen ratings, CNBC's overall viewership from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. fell 11 percent in the first week of Fox Business Network's existence, compared to the previous week.

Yet CNBC notes a 25 percent rise in viewers in the 25-54 age group that advertisers covet. CNBC has also argued in the past that Nielsen ratings fail to track its core viewership of big-spending corporate decision makers in the office and gym.

Concrete information on whether Fox Business Network (FBN) had siphoned viewers away from CNBC is not yet available. FBN will not be measured by Nielsen for at least six months.

What is clear is General Electric-controlled CNBC -- available in 120 countries and long the default channel on U.S. trading floors -- faces its biggest challenge in 18 years.

CNBC ran ads during broadcasts of the rival network, while FBN has done the same on CNBC broadcasts.

CNBC has sought a second court injunction to block former contributor Eric Bolling, who quit the network in August, from appearing on Fox Business, where he is a guest commentator.

Bolling's contract includes a non-compete clause that expires in February 2008, while he is permitted to make non-regularly scheduled appearances on other networks.

"He has refused to honor his obligations and has disregarded a New York state court's ruling declining to relieve him of those obligations," CNBC said in a statement on Bolling. "As a result, CNBC is seeking injunctive relief to prevent him from further breaches of his contract."

EARLY SIGNS

FBN is already inching into CNBC territory. Speckles of its trademark yellow and red on-air color scheme last week began showing up on the New York Stock Exchange floor, once saturated with CNBC's blue-tinged screens.

Former CNBC anchor Liz Claman's debut on FBN on Thursday was marked by a blockbuster one-hour interview with billionaire investor Warren Buffett, a CNBC staple.

Even media types prone to poking fun at FBN's more light-hearted approach -- such as interviews with New York tourist attraction "Naked Cowboy" and beloved TV sock puppet Lamb Chop -- warmed to the channel's friendlier approach.

BusinessWeek called the network a "great start" and "fun to watch," and the Financial Times said it "enjoys an aura of inevitable success." Paul Levinson, chair of media studies at Fordham University, said FBN felt "younger" and "fresher."

Experts say the market could accommodate both channels.

"Although much of the press hype has been how it is likely to pull viewers from CNBC, history has shown there is room for multiple competitors in programming categories," said Derek Baine, senior analyst at media research firm SNL Kagan.

Publicly, CNBC and FBN executives say they are not direct rivals. But Murdoch has bigger ambitions and said he wants to take more than half of a bigger business viewing audience.

"We'd like to take some of their viewers," he told shareholders on Friday, referring to CNBC's demographic of people with an average net worth of $2.7 million -- coveted by advertisers of financial services, jewelry and luxury cars.

News Corp aims to spend up to $200 million over three years to nurture FBN's growth, and may launch regional versions.

On that front, CNBC has a head start. CNBC is in talks to launch channels in Asia, Europe and Latin America to expand its reach, though executives say its focus remains elite viewers.

"Narrow and deep works best in cable," Hoffman said. "We're not all things to all people. We're not populist but we want to be popular in our niche."

Not including hotels and offices, CNBC is available in about 400 million homes, including in Europe, India and China. It launched affiliates in South Africa and Poland this year.

The world may be big enough for both, but CNBC has a fight on its hands. Veteran media analyst Paul Kagan of PK Worldmedia Inc said, "I have no doubt that the Fox Business channel will be a formidable competitor to CNBC."

Source: Reuters

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