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Financial Networks Run for the Money : FNN: Investing Future in a New Prime-Time Lineup

December 16, 1990|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Financial News Network, it's the best of times and the worst of times. Good news first: After almost 10 years, FNN (now in 35 million households) has silenced the media brokers who didn't forecast a future-or much of an audience-in economic news. What's more, FNN loosened its tie last year and successfully expanded into prime-time with lifestyles programming.

Now the bad news: Infotechnology Inc., the company that has controlling interest in FNN, recently ran into a cash shortage and has put the cable network up for sale to pay off its debts. Stock in FNN has plummeted, and shareholders have filed suit against FNN claiming the cable company wrongfully withheld details about its investments.

When asked how the sale of FNN will affect its programming, president Michael Wheeler said: "It won't. Nothing that the viewers see on television is affected by it. What's on air now is not affected. Nothing at all."

Most analysts seem to agree that despite the dark cloud looming over its parent company, FNN remains a financial gem. In fact, likely buyers for FNN reportedly include its biggest competitors-Turner Broadcasting System Inc., which owns Cable News Network, and General Electric Co., owner of Consumer News and Business Channel.

Wheeler explained FNN's value: "Before the stock market crash of 1987, we had been in a very strong bull market. It was pretty easy. Just send money to your stockbroker and it went up every month, or buy a house and it increased in value every month. Now we're heading into a recession. Managing your business investments requires much more study and information."

From its start in 1981, FNN set itself apart as a service for serious investors. Each day, FNN's stock ticker from Wall Street dashes across the bottom of the TV screen. FNN reports on domestic and foreign markets, analyzing the day's trading and business news, with shows such as "Marketwatch A.M." anchored by Ron Insana and Randall Whipple.

"We're wired for cable and we have FNN on in the office all the time, along with CNN," said Mark Riely, financial analyst with the New York investment banking firm of MacDonald Grippo Riely Inc. "We keep FNN on in the background the way teen-agers might use MTV-you tune in and tune out, depending what's on."

Some predicted FNN would lose subscribers and fold its tent when the super-slick CNBC, backed by the NBC network, started up 18 months ago.

But FNN was prepared. Two years ago it abandoned an ailing home-shopping service and dropped much-criticized "infomercials," commercials dressed as investment-advice shows. Last fall, with flashier new sets and a bigger staff, FNN ventured into prime-time with a slate of original lifestyles programs geared for its upscale viewers.

"News you can use," Wheeler said.

"The American Entrepreneur" with Craig Wirth, a sort of financial Charles Kuralt, travels across America to uncover personal success stories. "Power Profile," hosted by actor and financial expert Wayne Rogers, is FNN's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Rogers goes behind the scenes with corporate bigwigs. Other shows look at art and automobile collecting, real-estate investment and tips for business travelers.

"This isn't old programming or reruns," said Bob Regan, FNN's vice president of programming and operations. "We don't buy programming from other people. We produce it. A few years ago we were doing news at night. Now we're doing high-quality, magazine-style programming."

Syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize winner who nightly hosts "The Insiders with Jack Anderson," said: "When I first went on FNN, the power brokers in Washington thought I did a daytime financial show. Whereas at first they would say it's a waste of time, now their response is much different. I can get almost anyone to appear on my show. (President Bush) agreed to be on later this season."

With the new changes, FNN's ratings increased and the network's national advertisers tripled. Unlike most cable networks that program for wider audiences, FNN knows who its upscale viewers are and focuses in on them-a demographic luxury it affords by charging higher advertising rates than most of its cable competitors. Simmons market research found last year that FNN, an advertiser's dream, had a greater concentration of high-level spenders than any other cable network.

Wheeler said 70% of FNN's viewers are males with college degrees and annual salaries of $30,000 or more. "We don't do programming that necessarily appeals to a male or female. If a female is investment-oriented she will watch. If not, she won't," Wheeler said.

On weekend afternoons FNN switches to sports news, interviews and scores. FNN also broadcasts its financial news to a radio network of 100 stations and offers a service that plugs its stock quotes and business news directly into personal computers.

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