The much-anticipated Fox Business Network debuted on 30 million televisions this week. As senior vice president and managing editor at FBN, Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto oversees all of the channel’s editorial content. Cavuto spoke to National Review Online Thursday about how he plans to compete with CNBC, what he thinks about accusations of conservative bias and why the rest of the media are getting the subprime mortgage story all wrong.
“By and large I guess I’m satisfied,” Cavuto says of FBN’s first week. “Of course, there were the little things — momentary lapses, freeze-frames, and that sort of thing, but… we’re keeping up our energy, which to me is the most important thing.”
When asked if he plans on making any big changes after week one, he adds, “I think the network is screaming for the Neil Cavuto Variety Show myself, but so far that’s fallen on deaf ears.”
Right now, FBN’s main competitor, CNBC, is available on 90 million screens — three times as many as FBN. “It is a concern of mine,” Cavuto says. “We’re in a third as many homes as CNBC. It has twice as many people, and it’s been doing this for two decades, so we are David against Goliath here.”
Cavuto doesn’t know exactly how the proposed rollout to more televisions will happen, he says, “but I know much of it will depend on the success, popularity, appeal, and buzz that develop around the network. I know that’s in large part what happened with Fox News Channel. It created such a buzz that cable systems invariably had to carry it. I’m hoping we can do the same.
“And that,” the bespectacled anchor adds, “is where I’m really relying on my sex appeal.”
FBN is different from competitors CNBC and Bloomberg in that it devotes more coverage to entertainment, sports and politics. In one of the primetime slots, Fox News anchor David Asman hosts America’s Nightly Scoreboard, which features reports not just on stocks, but sports and box-office stats as well.
Cavuto says that getting the right mix of business and other coverage remains a work in progress: “You always tinker, you always adjust, and you see what works and what doesn’t work. We’re never wedded to wrong ideas. We want to see what gels.
“I liken the channel to life itself,” he says. “The most hardcore business guy has a life, you know? He has interests and he has a family and he has goals and dreams… I never accepted as a given that we have to chase a relatively small audience of day-traders. I love day-traders, CEOs, and hedge-fund managers — I have them on — but I can’t butter my bread just with those guys. I have to reach out to a broader audience.”
So far the early reviews on Fox Business have been mixed; Business Week raved, “A Great Start,” while Reuters offered a “lukewarm review.” Cavuto says he just tries to encourage his staff to maintain perspective: “I’m old enough to know what it’s like when you start start-ups — that they’re rough, that the press on them is sometimes merciless. I remember that when I started at Fox News Channel seven years ago, and I was there at the start-up of CNBC almost two decades ago. And in both cases, I’m sure you remember, it was not to the kindest reviews.”
One subset of critics in particular has chimed in, right on cue, to pan the network. On the website of the liberal Center for American Progress, Eric Alterman called Fox Business “another source of biased, unreliable, chatter cluttering up the media universe.”
Of liberals’ attempts to hit Fox Business with the same conservative-bias accusations they have lobbed for so long at Fox News, Cavuto says, “It would surprise me if they didn’t.
“I sometimes look at the ticker of financial information and wonder if they think that has a slant,” he says. “I didn’t know that quoting Eli Lilly or Mitronic had a bias. I didn’t know having CEOs of all stripes, or in my case, last night interviewing John Kerry, has a political bent. People, I’ve learned in this business, will perceive what they want out of a given interview. I’ll get people on the right who are furious that I even let George Soros on my network. I’ve heard from people who are furious that I had Alan Patricof, a big Hillary Clinton fundraiser, on my show. You can’t win.”
Cavuto adds, however, that sometimes the controversy works in his favor. “I’ve heard it said that, particularly at Fox News Channel, a lot of people watch simply because they hate us. My response to that is, ‘Do they have a Nielson Box?’”
“So I don’t really care,” Cavuto says, “but I do think that any impartial observer would look at how we’re presenting business information on Fox Business Network and come away with [the impression that] this isn’t about elephants or donkeys. This isn’t about red or blue. This is about green, and helping people make more of it.”
Cavuto says that one reason that Fox News and now Fox Business have drawn so much scrutiny is that both networks are often willing to break from the media consensus. Of the biggest story in the business world right now, the trouble in the subprime mortgage market, he says most of the media’s hysterical coverage isn’t justified by the facts.
“I do think the media have way, way, way overstated the severity of this situation,” he says. “To hear most of the media tell it, you’d think that every mortgage was melting down. In fact, that’s a popular term, to call it ‘the mortgage meltdown.’ It’s an expression I’ve forbidden to use here at FBN, because if you’re going to say ‘meltdown,’ you’d better damn well tell me that every house in America is under lava.
“The statistics are quite the opposite,” he says. “Ninety-six percent of all mortgages are still being paid on time. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a great deal of pain out there. There are a lot of folks in trouble, but not all folks. The same thing applies to the subprime mortgage situation. You’d think that everyone who has a subprime mortgage is a delinquent, yet close to 9 out of 10 of them are paying their mortgages back on time. And subprime mortgages, which is a bad name for them, gave young people opportunities to buy homes that, when I was a young guy, would never have been afforded to me in my life.
“So it’s not all bad,” he says, “but the media leave that little part out, because that little inconvenient truth doesn’t fit in with the one that they want to push, which is that we’re going to hell in a handbasket… but that’s the kind of stuff I want to elicit out of my guests. I want to get a timetable of where they see things going, how big a problem this is. I let it be known that I think this issue has been overstated, but guests can come on and argue it with me. Many have. But that’s how the network serves viewers. We want to debate these issues, to get beyond the consensus views and be a little contrarian.”
Now that the adrenaline rush from the first week has passed, Cavuto, who battles Multiple Sclerosis, says his doctors and his wife have been worried that he might suffer some sort of crash. Of course, he says he feels fine. His secret? “I’m mixing the drugs with alcohol now.”
On a somewhat more serious note, he adds, “It’s a tough disease. My voice, as you can hear, isn’t that great, which is one of the problems associated with MS, so I make sure I have a fifth scotch right before I go on the air. But people who have looked at my scans and MRIs say I shouldn’t be walking or talking, and as you can tell by this long-winded conversation, I can’t shut up.”
As for the future of Fox Business, Cavuto says one element of the early feedback he’s gotten is particularly encouraging. “People are watching us with the sound up,” he says. “The biggest argument I’ve heard from my CNBC friends, and I have many friends over there, is that they’re in all these restaurants, trading floors ,and gyms. And I always say, well yeah, but without the sound. They’re not hearing you.
“Now if you’re an anchor slob like me,” he says, “and people are saying, ‘I saw you last night, but I didn’t hear a word you said,’ that’s a little disconcerting. But that’s their bragging point. And one thing I’ve discovered from the early e-mails, you know, from people who are actually getting our channel, is that they are watching and listening. The sound is up. I like that.”
— Stephen Sprueill is an NRO staff reporter.