Trump Never Needed a Trump TV—He’s Got the Fox Business Network
Fox News’s sister channel, founded in 2007 as a direct competitor to CNBC, struggled for nearly a decade to gain any steam with viewers. It was only a few years ago that much of FBN was experiencing abysmal ratings, often in the single-digit thousands for its key demographic. The schedule routinely shuffled, programs were slashed wholesale, and the network constantly seemed to be grappling with an identity crisis.
That was until Trump ran for president.
Over the past two years, FBN—which employed this writer from 2009 to 2012—has experienced explosive ratings growth tracking with the ascent of the president to whom it has devoted hours and hours of unabashedly positive coverage. In 2015, it was the fastest-growing network on all of cable, raking in double- and triple-digit growth in almost all relevant ratings factors. And last year, it continued that impressive, record-shattering surge, this time claiming to have beaten CNBC in business-day ratings for an entire quarter—a trend that has continued into 2017.
Of course, a former reality-TV-star-turned-presidential-candidate throwing punches on a daily basis for 17 months was an obvious boon to all of television news, as executives of all stripes have freely admitted. But Trump’s rise was especially integral in shaping Fox Business Network’s identity.
The network has cemented itself as a reliable defender of Trump’s overall agenda and a ’round-the-clock foe of the bogeymen that also plague the collective consciousness of its big sister’s prime-time lineup: P.C. culture, “far-left” academics and protesters, the liberal media, Black Lives Matter activists, “snowflake” millennials, and all things Democratic Party.
In effect, the network ditched straight-up business news for a model similar to Fox News: politics (and, yes, business) with a distinctly right-wing voice.
“They’ve been having an incredibly good run,” a Fox Business insider, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Beast. And it’s because “FBN took a Fox News II approach” while CNBC has been noticeably “complacent” with losing its grip on the ratings. (Interestingly, in 2011, the network's then-EVP Kevin Magee sent out a staff-wide memo urging producers specifically not to copy the Fox News model. How times change.)
A former Fox executive, similarly requesting anonymity, added: “They beat CNBC, sure, but they aren’t really competing with the business networks anymore. There are times where they’re more Fox-like than even Fox News.”
Indeed, a search of recent FBN segments—using TV Eyes and the TV News Archive—shows that the network doubles even Fox News in mentions of key right-wing phrases like “liberal media” and George Soros—the liberal billionaire conservatives commonly believe to be behind any and all opposition to the president. The business network also used the more pejorative phrase “left-wing media” to describe mainstream press 10 times more than its counterpart had in the same period.
FBN does feature a hefty dose of opposing views via its rotating roster of “Democratic consultants” and liberal in-house punching bags but, upon reviewing months of transcripts, its general editorial consensus is quite clear: President Trump? A sensible businessman who has quickly become a great uniter. “Never Trump” conservatives? Time to get in line. The media? Trying to undermine the president. Anti-Trump protests? Get a job. Michael Flynn’s scandalous resignation as national security adviser? The real story is the illegal, anti-Trump leaks that led to it.
With the exception of MTV VJ-turned-libertarian star Kennedy and self-identified liberal business-reporting vet Liz Claman, the network’s current programming, by and large, harps on one key theme: The media (save for Fox) is bad, and Trump will make America great again.
Within a year after her impressive GOP debate moderating gig, ex-CNBC star Maria Bartiromo, who leads into FBN’s business hours with a 6-9 a.m. show, began taking a more friendly tone toward Trump. She would often extol the virtues of her fellow New York business icon’s presence in the race and, most noticeably, during a late-season period in which Trump retreated to only friendly cable-news interviews (mostly just Fox News), the then-nominee appeared several times for overtly friendly conversations, via phone, on her show.
After the election heated up, Bartiromo seemingly ventured further into Trumpist territory. While her show is still among the most ostensibly business-centric on FBN, it often features genial conversation with a faction of ardent Trumpkins, including Sheriff David A. Clarke, a clownish cable-news star whose far-right commentary is aimed to please the lowest common denominator among Trump fans.
Bartiromo’s Twitter feed has similarly devolved: On any given day you might find her retweeting pro-Trump memes, InfoWars conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, or Trump’s digital Pravdas in Breitbart and The Daily Caller. She once uncritically retweeted a smear that Hillary Clinton called Muslim people “sand n——rs”—a retweet Bartiromo later admitted was “wrong.”
But her ratings continue to soar, suggesting the longtime business reporter is simply and successfully responding to consumer demand.
Following Bartiromo—described as “still the most fair and balanced, by comparison” by one current FBN producer who requested anonymity to speak freely about their employer—comes three hours of Varney & Co., hosted by Stuart Varney, a cheeky, self-described “conservative” British commentator.
Varney’s show was most notably the source of a deceptively edited viral clip claiming President Obama encouraged “illegals” to vote, and he has occasionally pushed voter-fraud conspiracy theories based on fringe blog The Gateway Pundit. The host and his regular panelists, Ashley Webster and Liz MacDonald, consistently rail against the usual bugaboos—often contorting business topics where politics seemingly has no place into routine liberal-bashing or Trump-defending.
“That’s the genius of his show,” the former Fox executive told The Daily Beast. “Varney finds a way to take business news and spin it to attack liberals.” The exec pointed to a series of Varney & Co. segments about ESPN’s struggles. Each time, the show found a way to blame the network’s subscription decline not on the rise of cable cord-cutting but on ESPN personalities spouting liberal politics.
It has all worked quite well for Varney, as his ratings have experienced new highs in recent months.
The rest of FBN’s business-day coverage, too, mostly consists of regimented Trump-boosting. And it’s not just because of the president’s purportedly “business-friendly agenda” (never you mind his anti-free trade rhetoric, of course).
A laser-like focus on so-called liberal media unfairly bashing Trump is a key theme of the network’s 2 p.m. show, Intelligence Report with Trish Regan.
Regan was reportedly being groomed by Roger Ailes to take over for Megyn Kelly’s inevitable vacancy, and that Ailesian sense of combativeness has shone through in Regan’s two years with FBN. Though she will often deploy the Bill O’Reilly-esque “I’m an independent” cloak, Regan’s show is an unabashed exercise in both anti-anti-Trumpism and anti-everyone-but-Fox media criticism.
A regular feature of Intelligence Report is a segment or two complaining about the media or Democrats standing in the way of Trump’s achievements—usually featuring supportive guests from the Trump surrogacy roster, the right-wing Media Research Center, or Fox’s in-house crew of culture warriors.
One extraordinarily Fox-like segment included Regan fretting over Hillary Clinton’s “hypocrisy” in allowing rapper Jay Z to perform at her pre-election rally while decrying her rival Trump’s infamous comments about groping women against their will.
It’s been a successful formula for Regan. For the month of February 2017, she and her dayside compatriots topped their CNBC competitors in both the ad-friendly 25- to 54-year-old demographic and total viewership.
“FBN talks a great deal about market forces,” a former Fox Business producer told The Daily Beast, “and no one has responded better to pro-Trump market forces than Trish Regan.”
Similarly, After the Bell co-host Melissa Francis regularly circles the Trump wagons, praising his “genius” attacks on the media and dismissing questions about the president’s alleged ties to Russia.
She, too, claims the “independent” mantle but is less shy about her true feelings. “I would gnaw off my right hand and have a stump before I would let it go vote for Hillary Clinton,” Francis confessed on-air before the election. “Who’s feeling deplorable?” she wrote in a celebratory tweet the night Trump won. She also regularly defends Trump during her appearances on the Fox News noon-hour talk show Outnumbered.
An hour after the closing bell is Risk & Reward, whose host, Deirdre Bolton, under mysterious circumstances, has not been seen in the anchor chair since summer 2016. In Bolton’s stead, under substitute-host (and Varney sidekick) Liz MacDonald, the once finance-heavy show has turned into a conspicuously pro-Trump, anti-media commentary hour. In one segment, MacDonald could barely conceal her disdain for Trump’s critics, mocking them as needing a “safe space” from his scaremongering inauguration speech.
And, as you might have guessed, the show’s year-over-year ratings growth has been massive.
Same goes for Charles Payne, who has long been a conservative commentator for the network. Following in the footsteps of other FBN shows, his 6 p.m. program, Making Money, discusses stock tips and market trends butted up against distinctly right-leaning political discussions. Payne himself often lovingly uses the phrase “Trump train” while imploring Democrats and “Never Trump” conservatives to “get on board.”
Making Money has long utilized Fox News’s bread-and-butter formula of multi-person panels serving up alley-oop talking point-laden answers to each other while slamming “elitist liberals.” Only now, in the Trump era, that seems to be exactly what consumers want: Making Money’s February 2017 average viewership doubled itself from the same month in 2016.
And then in FBN’s prime time comes the biggest Trumpkin of them all: Lou Dobbs.
As an early ticket-holder on the Trump train, the infamously xenophobic populist has carved something of a niche for himself: a full hour each weeknight of pure, uncut boot-licking that might possibly outdo Sean Hannity in its religious devotion to all things Trump. Dobbs’s eponymous 7 p.m. show spends so many hours promoting Trump that it should be considered unpaid advertising and surrogacy work for the inevitable 2020 campaign.
In Dobbs’s world, competing media outlets are “the fake news media”; Democrats are “Dimms”; Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are victims of a “criminal” deep state; urban streets are overrun by violent “illegals” and criminals; and Trump’s lies about widespread voter fraud are “backed up” by debunked studies.
Why read Breitbart when you can just turn on Fox Business Network at 7 p.m.?
And, as CNN reported in January, “Lou Dobbs is making his ratings great again” by nearly quadrupling his viewership from 2015 to 2016, and jumping 282 percent year-over-year among the coveted demographic of viewers aged 25-54.
FBN had its best year ever in 2016, and it’s thanks in no small part to Lou Dobbs. However, with its success seemingly tied to the Trump era, the Fox Business Network may face a test in the future.
“At the end of 100 days, dissatisfaction will set in if Trump doesn’t meet his many promises,” the Fox insider warned. “I think that’s when FBN’s next programming challenge comes in: How do you keep these people engaged beyond defending Donald Trump?”