Stuart Varney’s Secret Weapon in Fox Business’ War Against CNBC

“We have closed the gap, to a large degree, with CNBC. I regard them as my principal competitors,” Varney says

Fox Business Network Stuart Varney
Fox Business Network

One year ago this week, Fox Business shook up its programming lineup in an attempt to close the ratings gap with rival CNBC by adding additional business coverage in the morning. Stuart Varney, whose time slot was shifted, says the plan hatched by Fox News boss Roger Ailes worked.

“We made the change because we really wanted to shift how we cover business news. In fact, I don’t even like the name business news,” Varney told TheWrap. “I want a broader audience for people who are interested in the news with a financial angle. We treat business news or news about money in a very, very different way. The new format has allowed us to do that in a way that succeeds against our competition.”

The changes included Maria Bartiromo’s show moving up to 6 a.m. ET from her old 9 a.m. ET time slot to replace Don Imus, Varney’s program shifting to 9 a.m. from his previous 11 a.m. ET slot and adding an additional hour, Neil Cavuto’s “Coast-to-Coast” kicking off at Noon ET followed by Trish Regan’s “Intelligence Report.” Cavuto was on during prime time and Regan was still employed by Bloomberg before the changes.

The lineup change have helped ratings significantly. FBN has seen a ratings increase by more than 100 percent across the board since the lineup change among total viewers, growing from an average of  53,000 to 133,000 total viewers in Business Day. In addition, the network recently added an additional 1.5 million subscribers bringing it closer to the full distribution mark and was the fastest-growing cable network in 2o15, according to Nielsen. FBN now has roughly 85 million subscribers.

CNBC isn’t rated by Neilsen during the daytime anymore (the network dropped out of such coverage in 2015 because it complained Nielsen didn’t measure enough out-of-home viewing), but FTVLive reports that Fox Biz grew 89 percent among the key demo of adults age 25-54 in the month of May compared to last year, while CNBC fell 36 percent.

“We have closed the gap, to a large degree, with CNBC. I regard them as my principal competitors,” Varney said. “The new format gave me three hours. That’s a long time in television but it gives me a chance to let stories breath.”

Varney considers CNBC his top rival, but Nielsen statistics indicate that a lot of FBN’s growth is actually diehard Fox News Channel fans that flip to Ailes’ other station throughout the day. Roughly 1 million viewers tuned into 60 minutes of “Varney & Co.” in the second quarter of 2016 and 91 percent of those viewers also watched at least one hour of Fox News, according to Nielsen.

CNBC declined TheWrap’s request for comment.

Varney wants to “entertain” and aims to deliver interesting business content with a smile on his face.

“It’s not that we’re lightweight. We’re not lightweight at all, we are very serious,” he says.

Fox Biz’s “Varney & Co” cut into CNBC’s time-slot lead every month from November 2015 thru May 2016. The show’s namesake feels that the network’s approach has helped ratings just as much as the lineup changes. Varney describes the “old way” of doing business news as covering cooperative CEOs, The Federal Reserve and earnings per share.

“It was all about jargon, which I really don’t like,” Varney said. “That was maybe OK in the 1980s and the 1990s when business news was first appearing, but now it’s a different world. Wall Street is widely unpopular, so don’t use Wall Street jargon and if you do, you turn the viewers off.”

Varney and FBN were looking for a new way to cover business news and realized nobody wanted to hear standard CEO interviews anymore. Especially since the Sarbanes-Oxley act of 2002 was passed by Congress to protect investors from the possibility of fraudulent accounting activities by corporations.

“A CEO interview doesn’t do you much good because they cannot answer questions. They’re terrified of a lawsuit,” Varney said. “We concentrate a lot on the companies, which people know, and their products, which people use and the trends within the industry.”

The lineup changes aren’t the only thing that expanded FBN’s reach over the past year. The network hosted a pair of GOP debates this election cycle, drawing 13.5 and 11 million viewers, respectively.

“That was a wonderful introduction to the general audience to Fox Business. And it stuck,” Varney said. “Those two debates [helped] put us on the map. I think we’ve retained those viewers.”