News Corp.'s Dow Jones Bid Puts CNBC On The Defensive

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Rupert Murdoch's stunning $5 billion takeover bid for Dow Jones is the key to News Corp.'s strategy to topple CNBC in the potentially lucrative arena of business-news television.

Did I say "topple?" Excuse me. I meant "crush." (Obliterate is probably a tad strong but you get my drift.)

By making this unsolicited offer, News Corp. chief Murdoch proved -- again -- why he has a reputation as a global media master. Regardless of how observers view him and his media holdings in the U.S. or elsewhere, he understands the ever-changing media landscape better than anyone else. He adjusts to change. He thinks global. He thinks digital. Always, he thinks big.

It seems he isn't alone these days. Reuters Group confirmed Friday that it had received a takeover bid, at a time when Thomson is becoming increasingly ambitious. The newswires also buzzed with reports of a possible Microsoft Corp. alliance with Yahoo Inc. , as a way to keep pace with Google Inc.

Ace in the hole

Murdoch's ace in the hole in his attempt to defeat CNBC, a unit of General Electric Co. , is Fox News chief Roger Ailes.

Under Ailes, Fox has made a living out of exceeding expectations. If you wonder whether the new Fox Business Channel, scheduled to make its debut in the fourth quarter, really could leapfrog CNBC, remember what Ailes has accomplished.

When Fox got going in 1996, it seemed unlikely that a newcomer could surpass CNN, which was then still riding high off its coverage of Desert Storm years earlier.

Ailes sensed that CNN, around the time it was acquired by Time Warner Inc. , was getting complacent. Since then, the ratings numbers have proven him correct. For years, Fox has been the leader among cable news channels.

How did Ailes do it? The same way he hopes to top CNBC: by building a loyal team, exploiting his foe's weaknesses, putting an emphasis on creating (not acquiring) on-air stars and presenting something new and unique. Skeptics grumble that Fox caters to a right-wing audience -- but they'd love to have such viewer loyalty themselves.

CNBC is known to try to reach corporate executives, stock-exchange leaders and fat-cat investors. I suspect that Ailes will woo the individual investors that CNBC neglects. Ailes is a populist at heart. Look for the new channel to reflect this view.

Ailes, in turn, is leaning heavily on Neil Cavuto, a seasoned and talented TV journalist, to lead the new channel's charge against CNBC. Free of the histrionics that mark CNN's Lou Dobbs and CNBC's Jim Cramer, Cavuto succeeds in being a reassuring presence on TV.

On the day the Dow Jones offer was confirmed, Cavuto faced the challenge of interviewing his boss, Murdoch, and then immediately following it up with a conversation with former GE Chief Executive Jack Welch.

Cavuto performed admirably - asking Murdoch and Welch all the pertinent questions while showing respect for his subjects (as he invariably does). He managed to represent his employer's interests - and come through for the viewers.

As businessmen, Ailes and Cavuto want to win every battle. They both used to work for CNBC. Their competitive spirit raises the stakes.

CNBC's Web challenge

CNBC still has some work to do online.

One of the battles between Fox's business channel and CNBC will be fought online. CNBC could be vulnerable here, particularly if News Corp's audacious takeover attempt goes through. (Dow Jones owns the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, the Dow Jones Newswires and MarketWatch, the publisher of this report.)

CNBC presented a reworked Web site last December. But it still looks slapped together. It lacks vision and has an extremely busy look to boot. It's anything but sleek.

By contrast, the Wall Street Journal, which Murdoch covets for its high quality and prestige, has built one of the most admired Internet sites around. WSJ.com reflets the newspaper's commitment to excellence in every phase of its operations. No wonder it could boast 931,000 subscribers by the end of the first quarter.

The Journal's site features some of the most sophisticated blogs and graphics anywhere. Shrewdly, it stresses interactivity, one of the keys to success in the Internet world.

Given their pedigrees, it's no surprise that the Journal, the New York Times Co. (TICKER:NYT) and the Washington Post Co. have all assembled strong Web products.

By contrast, the biggest problem with CNBC's Web site is that the newsiest information on it reads a little like a virtual ad for ... CNBC.

I was unimpressed after I clicked on to CNBC.com's Web site on Thursday afternoon at the close of trading. I was bombarded by a mishmash of news headlines, information about a contest, lots of data and the Question of the Day. ("Is the Spider-Man franchise too naughty for a preteen audience?") There was also a notice about Online Currency Trading, which may have been a story or an ad. At a quick glance, I wasn't sure.

And all this stuff fit on one computer screen!

I was almost too exhausted and bewildered by then to proceed to the bottom of the page. But I pressed on. The most surprising thing I saw there was that someone had misspelled "controlling." ("CNBC's Faber: Murdoch Tries to Win Over Dow Jones' Family.")

Now, all journalists make typos all the time (me, God knows, included). But in a case of unfortunate timing, the spelling error occurred in a headline/blurb to tease Faber's big scoop -- about how News Corp. had made a takeover offer for Dow Jones, one of the greatest moments in CNBC.com's history.

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you think of the merger mania in the media segment these days?

MONDAY REPORT CARD: The New York Times received too much praise for saying it would refrain from attending functions when the media act cozy with Washington politicians. Congratulations -- nah. What kept you?

THE READERS RESPOND to my columns about News Corp.'s bid to buy Dow Jones: "Like you, my initial thoughts regarding Murdoch's move was what it would mean for the yet-to-be-launched business cable network Fox is planning. Definitely will be interesting to see how this all plays out." Chris Hills

(Media Web appears on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.)


By Jon Friedman
  • CBSNews

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