How Fox Business Network Plans to Avoid CNBC Republican Debate Fiasco

November 9, 2015, 4:56 PM UTC
Republican Presidential Candidates Hold Third Debate In Colorado
BOULDER, CO - OCTOBER 28: Presidential candidates Ohio Governor John Kasich (L-R), Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz (R-TX), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) pose for a photo at the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate at University of Colorado's Coors Events Center October 28, 2015 in Boulder, Colorado. Fourteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the third set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Photograph by Andrew Burton — Getty Images

Coming on the heels of a CNBC Republican primary debate that threw a spotlight on the media’s tense relationship with the GOP’s presidential hopefuls, Fox Business Network is now up at bat, and it’s not being shy about how it’s going to avoid the pitfalls of its rival network.

Right after the third GOP primary debate, social media was aflame with harsh opinions about CNBC’s handling of the event. Many criticized the event’s paucity of economic discussion and its abundance of personality-focused, “gotcha”-style questions. Neil Cavuto, a Fox Business Network anchor and one of three moderators of the network’s GOP debate on Tuesday, had the following to say:

“What precipitated that little ribbing was we were getting a few tweets from people saying, ‘Why isn’t [the issues of] business coming up? Please tell me, Cavuto, you aren’t going to miss the opportunity to talk about the stuff we thought would come up in this debate,'” Cavuto told Fortune.

Behind the scenes and in promotions for the next debate, Fox Business Network has taken things a step further, with promises that the channel will get the sparring back on track. In one ad, a voiceover says, “CNBC never asked the real questions, never covered the real issues. That’s why on November 10, the real debate about our economy and our future is only on Fox Business Network.”

“When you have a Fox News property, you have to have a swagger,” said Bill Shine, Fox Business Network’s senior executive vice president for programming.

Tuesday’s debate will come with a backdrop of sour grapes among the GOP candidates towards the media. Some candidates have claimed that the mainstream media hasn’t been fair with the Republican presidential hopefuls. This isn’t new territory, especially for anchor Maria Bartiromo, the channel’s global markets editor and one of the debate moderators. In 2011, she had a tit-for-tat with candidate Newt Gingrich during a Republican debate in Iowa she moderated while she was at CNBC, during which Gingrich chastised the media for inaccurately reporting on the economy.

Bartirimo says the GOP base has a point, though. “Look, when people say ‘the liberal media,’ I don’t think it’s off base. There are a lot of things you don’t see in the media. Maybe people don’t think it’s important, like the IRS targeting conservatives.”

While Cavuto and Bartiromo have refrained from openly criticizing CNBC—both were anchors at the network before joining Fox—they both assert that the Republican debates have swung too far towards style over substance.

“I think there wasn’t enough focus on the issues, and a lot of focus on poking holes in all of the candidate’s plans,” said Bartiromo. “It sounded like they wanted to embarrass them. That’s why I go back to, why are we doing these debates? Are we serving the voter well if you are not soliciting information about their position on things?”

If both Fox moderators, along with Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker, stick to their game plan, Tuesday’s debate will be all business. Cavuto and Bartiromo said they are hoping to address topics like the labor participation rate, wage growth, America’s relationship with China, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

FBN’s Cavuto, Bartiromo, and Shine all showed no willingness to accede to a list of GOP demands that some candidates’ teams are developing. In a draft letter obtained by The Hill, the demands include pre-approval of graphics, abolishing of ‘lightning rounds’ that contain gotcha-style questions, and a caution that candidates can refuse to participate in future debates depending on the “fairness of your moderators’ questions.” Fox News Channel—and, by extension, its business network sibling—is reportedly exempt from such requests.

“I haven’t seen that [a letter] at all,” said Bartiromo. “I’m hearing about it in the news, but no one has asked me to do anything specific or different from what I’m planning on doing.”

FBN’s Shine was adamant that the network had not been directed to hold any punches in Tuesday’s debate. “We have very talented journalists, and they are going to ask tough questions. But … we want these candidates to answer questions and present their ideas on how they’ll fix the American economy.”

“I’m not red or blue. I’m just green. That’s what I care about,” said Cavuto.

Since launching eight years ago, the all-business face of Fox has tried to keep pace with CNBC. It’s been slow going. In the first week of October, for example, FBN had around 39% of the average weekday audience size of their rival network:

Many suggest that FBN could reap a ratings windfall during and after Tuesday evening’s debate. The network will stream the debate online for free and has convinced cable providers like DirecTV and Cable One to unbundle Fox Business Network and make the channel available to all subscribers ahead of the debate.

In an effort to make the event a little more civil, candidates will be given 90 seconds to respond to questions instead of the usual 60. And a light and buzzer will be installed to warn candidates to wrap up their replies.

While Fox has declined to share information on ad revenues on the event, all of the primary debates have been ratings winners for Fox News, CNN, and CNBC, so this could mark a milestone for FBN.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for Fox Business Network,” said Shine.

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