There is nothing exceptional about the outside of the graffiti-scarred garage on New York's West Side. But inside Matrix Studios, an entrepreneurial gamble is taking place. The set is ready, cameras are in place. In the edit room, a producer reviews a tape of Tip O'Neill for the Washington report. Coffee, bagels, and a crumb cake sit in the dimly lit hall. "Introducing Television for Those Who Place Success before Breakfast," the poster on the wall proclaims. "Business Times."
Good morning, America. Today, the morning news comes with a business twist. There is an untapped audience out there, and a baby boom of business shows hoping to capture the market.
Almost overnight, it seems, TV has discovered business. After decades of neglecting the subject, the airwaves are suddenly filled with reports of mergers, marketing strategies, industry trends, and the like. No less than 10 different business-oriented programs can now be seen on various public, cable, and independent outlets, and there is a whole network devoted to financial news (see sidebar, page 53).
One of the more ambitious efforts is Entertainment Sports Programming Network's (ESPN) "Business Times" -- the first nonsports show on what had been an all-sports network. A daily broadcast, it comes on the air every day at 6 a.m. (eastern time) and is repeated on tape at 7 a.m. The emphasis is on information -- crisp, current, and comprehensive. Each broadcast from the simulated trading room set contains 60 to 90 stories.
This morning's show begins with a minute and a half report, complete with graphs, on the battle over Norton Simon Inc. The next two and a half minutes are devoted to chief executives of American Stock Exchange companies meeting with some Washington heavyweights. The gold market gets 98 seconds, and then the stock, bond, and currency markets get 48 seconds. A feature on Procter & Gamble Co.'s attempts to patent an orange juice is followed by an interview with Victor Palmieri, the chief executive officer of troubled Baldwin United, discussing short-term debt strategy. A report on the technology behind new drug discoveries precedes an installment in a profile of United States Steel Corp. chairman David Roderick.
The net effect is that of an electronic version of The Wall Street Journal: a blend of fact and feature, hard news information, profiles, and analysis. This is hardly an accident. Journal readers are the audience coveted by "Business Times" advertisers, whose products this morning include Wang computers, Audi cars, Stresstabs, and Fidelity USA.
For most of the last 15 years, there has been no specific broadcasting to that group, indeed, there has been little business broadcasting at all other than public television's "Wall Street Week." Conventional wisdom held that the network audiences weren't interested in business news. It was too boring, programmers said. Too complicated. There weren't any pictures. And the public didn't care.
But times are changing. Newspapers are expanding their business sections. Regional business papers have sprouted like mushrooms. "There is a growing appreciation that business news isn't just for the business executive," says Chris Welles, director of the Walter Bagehot Fellowship Program in Economics and Business Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. "OPEC, inflation, recession -- people have started to realize that this stuff is the real news."
Certainly business-news reporting can make money. The top 10 business publications took in close to $350 million in advertising revenues last year, revenues that shows like "Business Times" hope to share. But, until recently, there was no way -- with the possible exception of a golf tournament -- for commercial television to reach decision-making executives. They weren't television watchers. The network prime-time audience is younger, less affluent, and too skewed toward women to be an attractive media buy for Wang, Audi, or Fidelity.
Cable has changed all that. The networks broadcast to a mass audience; cable can "narrowcast" to a small market segment. "The networks are a shotgun," explains "Business Times" chief operating officer Bill Ryan. "We're a rifle."
But even with a rifle there is no guarantee of hitting the target you are aiming at, as ESPN has discovered. Like most cable networks, it was built around the concept of segmented viewing, a single channel for a single theme -- in this case, sports. Beset by lagging ad revenues, mounting costs, and tougher competition for sporting events the network (85% owned by Getty Oil) is estimated to have lost $80 million since its launch in 1979.
Part of the problem has to do with the single-theme concept itself. "There just aren't that many sports fans watching TV at 6 a.m.," notes cable analyst Paul Kagan, president of Paul Kagan Associates Inc., in Carmel, Calif. Indeed, less than an estimated 1% of the 23 million homes wired into ESPN were watching early morning sports.
"Business Times" represents an opportunity for ESPN to reach another audience at that hour. But, while a market survey of ESPN customers predicted a sizable audience share, the history of narrowcast business shows hardly inspires confidence. Time Inc.'s "Money Matters" flopped. Reuters's syndicated investment weekly never got off the ground. Gannett's "Business Journal" with Louis Rukeyser was canceled after 26 weeks, due to lack of interest. Financial News Network reports losing over $4 million on $714,023 in advertising revenues for the year ended August 31, 1982.
Nevertheless, Denny Crimmins, founder and CEO of Business Times Inc., believes that his show will be the one to finally capture the executive market. "We only need to get 1% of the audience, and anyone can get 1% of anything."
Crimmins, formerly an executive with Reeves Communications, Newsweek and Harper's, bases his faith on both gut instinct and market research. Surveys for ESPN by Reymer & Gersin have shown that the best time to reach executives is between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Then there is what Crimmins calls "my horseback survey" of executives. He says he asked himself, What does a businessman on a business trip do in the morning except turn on the television? And network morning TV was getting too soft. "As it moved further in the direction of People magazine, it just wasn't serving my interest." Instead, he decided, the busy CEO or would-be CEO would prefer a kind of early-morning briefing.
In July 1982, Crimmins and his associate, Bill Ryan, approached ESPN with their briefing concept. Their original plan had been to line up affiliates and start a new cable network, but the cost and time involved proved prohibitive, and ESPN, the largest of the cable networks with a predominately male audience, seemed like a logical fit. "Business Times" was signed to a 15-year contract, renewable at 3-year intervals. Each hour would offer 24, 30-second commercial spots: 4 would go to the local stations, 2 to the network, and 18 to "Business Times."
The months that followed were frantic. Offices, a studio, and a set were designed and built in the Matrix Building The Financial Times of London was signed up as a news source. An estimated $10 million was raised during September and October. (Ryan declines to identify the sources although he points out that the board includes Peter Danforth of Fidelity Venture Associates, Theodore F. Walkowicz of Advanced Technology Ventures, and a managing director of Morgan Stanley & Co.) A staff of 46 was hired, the cream of the business press, including editors from Newsweek, Business Week, The Economist, and Fortune magazines, and National Public Radio -- 20 of whom were given a share in the equity.
"We spent our money on staff because in a start-up you can't cover up mediocrity," Ryan says. "They're journalists first. We didn't want pretty faces reading TelePrompters." On March 1, "Business Times" went on the air.
Still unanswered, however, is the crucial question: Can "Business Times" make money? That depends on whether the show can attract a large enough, and a select enough, audience to be able to sell to advertisers at a profit. Ryan is vague about costs, beyond suggesting that "Business Times" costs about $20,000 to $25,000 per show. A trade journal reported that initiaI ad rates were $1,500 for a 30-second spot; actually, Ryan says, the charge was closer to $1,000 per spot "and has gone up 30 or 40%." Both Ryan and Crimmins agree that the show needs to get a 1 rating to make money (that is, 1% of ESPN households). While the show has hit a peak of 1.2, ratings are currently hovering between .7 and .8.
Mike Ephron, executive vice-president of the New York advertising firm of Scali, McCabe, Sloves, feels confident that "Business Times" can get the ratings it needs to be a viable element in the ad marketplace. "There is a market out there, and 'Business Times' has a good head start," he says. "The hours are right, and it's on one of the major cable networks. They're the best shot that's coming down the pike. "
But "Business Times" faces two big obstacles. The first is the usability factor. As Tom King, president of American Business Press Inc., points out, "You can't take it home at night." Nor can you stick it in your briefcase to read at your leisure. Or skim over the information you don't need and save what is valuable. Or circle an article to show to a colIeague. What is more, you might miss the only story that interests you if it happens to come on while you are showering. In short, newspapers still have some advantages.
The second obstacle is the glamourand-glitz factor. The professional print journalists associated with "Business Times" may be knowledgeable, but the majority of them lack the slick polish of trained TV performers. Moreover, many viewers have come to expect flashy graphics and compelling tape on a morning show. Instead, "Business Times gives them interviews and statements -- "talking heads," as they say in the trade -- along with a torrent of charts and graphs. Columbia's Chris Welles, for one, is skeptical about this approach, arguing that, "when people watch cable, they expect network production values."
Crimmins disagrees. "Face it," he says, "business isn't visual. If you show assembly lines, you're producing bad industrial films. Talking heads and graphs are how businessmen are used to getting their information. It's what they get all day."
In any case, it seems certain that some form of TV business journalism will survive. And whoever discovers how to capture and hold the executive audience for advertisers -- how to make a television broadcast as much a part of the executive day as The Wall Street Journal folded over morning coffee -- should thrive.
Not that The Journal is concerned. "We don't expect it to cut into our circulation at all," says Lawrence Armour, director of corporate relations for Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Journal. "We're still the paper of record. All this new awareness of the importance of business whets people's appetite for more. And when you want more -- more facts and more detail -- you go to The Journal."
Then again, Dow Jones is not taking any chances. In October 1982, it launched its own television show, "The Wall Street Journal Report," produced jointly with Independent Network News and broadcast by more than 80 stations across the country.