NEW YORK — When Neil Cavuto began covering business news in the early 1980s, his friends considered him a nerd.
But with the meteoric growth of business news on television today, Mr. Cavuto, anchor of the Fox News Channel's "Cavuto Business Report," says those same friends now say he's "almost cool."
Not only is business news more fashionable as a journalistic beat, but it's also becoming good business for television. More than 40 business programs now appear on broadcast and cable channels, collectively reaching about two-thirds of US viewing households.
"Big pay packages for executives, big takeover targets, the huge corporate egos involved - these kinds of stories beat an episode of 'Dallas' any day," says Cavuto.
News about bond trading and public offerings, once the domain of a Wall Street elite, is now available around the clock to almost anyone. From Bloomberg Television to CNNfn, investors themselves are getting a mother lode of economic intelligence that they increasingly use to make financial decisions.
The boom in business news has brought an unlikely challenger to the nation's nightly newscasts. Tom, Dan, and Peter: Meet Lou. Last month CNN expanded its 18-year-old nightly edition of "Moneyline With Lou Dobbs," which pulls the highest-earning ad rates on CNN, to compete with the big three network newscasts. The new program, "Moneyline News Hour With Lou Dobbs," now delivers its own take on the nation's news at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time.
Just how hot is business news? In 1997, the bull market ranked as the fourth most-covered story on the nightly newscasts, according to the Tyndall Report, which tracks such coverage. Earlier this year a crisis over the rupiah - the Indonesia currency - became the lead story in newspapers and network newscasts across the US.
Cable television, able to target niche viewership, has become a hotbed of news about money, finance, and the economy. Financial news channel CNBC is one of the fastest growing and among the most-profitable cable networks in the nation. And 24-hour news channels like MSNBC and the Fox News Channel are increasingly turning to business news to draw audiences.
Television has become so important to business news that last year the NASDAQ stock exchange opened MarketSite, a futuristic-looking broadcast facility at NASDAQ's New York headquarters. MarketSite links major trading floors via remote video, offering financial journalists up-to-the-minute visuals to accompany their stories.
And business news reporters themselves are gaining a following. Just ask the Cleveland housewife who hosts an Internet chat room called "Hunks of CNBC."
Stockholders on the rise
The booming industry of TV business news has much to do with what Linda O'Bryon, executive editor of PBS's "Nightly Business Report," terms the "explosive growth" in Americans' stock ownership.
Assets in Americans' 401(k) retirement accounts, invested in stocks and bonds, now total more than $900 billion.
That's a 60 percent rise over the past decade. A NASDAQ study recently found that 43 percent of Americans now own stocks.
The growing interest in the fortunes of American business has been especially good news for business reporters, says Everette Dennis, professor of communication and media management at Fordham University in New York. "Covering business and finance is one of the few growth beats in journalism," he says.
At the same time, business journalists are often held to higher standards than journalists in other genres. "When you're writing about markets or bonds, you have to be precise because information is money," says Matt Winkler, editor in chief of Bloomberg News.
Anything less can be a financial nightmare, as Reuters found out last year. An incorrect report by the influential wire service caused shares of ACT, a computer networking equipment company in Camarillo, Calif., to fall 22 percent.
Such mistakes are rare because business-news organizations know their credibility is constantly at stake, says Mr. Winkler. At Bloomberg, every story is required to have two independent on-the-record sources. A story with an anonymous source can run only with approval from Winkler.
Business reporters are routinely required to disclose their financial holdings to their editors. Some take it a step further, like Fox's Cavuto, who says he never interviews a CEO in whose company he owns stock.
Competition among programmers
Tune in any weeknight to CNBC or CNN, and you'll witness television's most visible battle for business-news viewers. Last October, CNBC launched "Business Center," the network's answer to CNN's "Moneyline."
Tackling breaking news and emphasizing business personalities, "Business Center" is banking on one of its own personalities for success: Maria Bartiromo, CNBC's chief stock-market reporter.
Ms. Bartiromo resembles a young Sophia Loren, and the program's opening close-ups make sure viewers know it. Yet even with quick-cut, MTV-like visuals, "Business Center" is seen in only about 190,000 households each evening, less than half the number watching "Moneyline."
On another front, CNBC isn't challenging competitors but joining them. Earlier this year, Dow Jones & Co. and CNBC announced the two companies would collaborate on a global business-news partnership on channels overseas.
Yet what it all adds up to is a lot of effort to reach what traditionally has been a small audience. Only two business programs draw network-size viewership, and both air on public television stations: "Wall $treet Week With Louis Rukeyser," with 4.7 million households each week; and "Nightly Business Report," which draws more than 1 million viewing households each evening.
A recent Freedom Speaks/Roper Center poll found that 25 percent of the public watches business programs on television "occasionally," while only 9 percent watches "regularly."
That finding doesn't surprise Peter Kann, chairman of Dow Jones & Co., which publishes The Wall Street Journal. "I doubt there will ever be a mass audience for business news," he says. "The Wall Street Journal, arguably the most successful business-news medium, is bought by 1.8 million people a day. That's a small fraction of the number of people who watched 'Seinfeld.' "
But for business news on television to succeed, viewership doesn't have to be vast, says Mr. Kann. For an audience to draw lucrative advertisers - the key to most shows' success - it's more important that viewers be loyal, not large in number.