The News Corporation needs television viewers to find the Fox Business Network, and it thinks the cowboy-hat-wearing radio host Don Imus could help.
The network is in advanced negotiations to simulcast “Imus in the Morning,” the syndicated talk show, people close to the talks say.
If a deal is reached, it would enable Mr. Imus to end his contract with RFD-TV, a little-known rural TV channel that currently televises his daily mix of political talk, interviews and wisecracks. But perhaps more important, the deal would bring a big (albeit bruised) name to Fox Business, which has struggled to gain a robust audience since it started nearly two years ago.
A Fox spokeswoman declined to comment about the negotiations, saying only that “we talk to engaging and interesting talent all the time.”
In turning to Mr. Imus to bolster Fox Business, the News Corporation is taking a page from the playbook of its sibling channel Fox News, which now drives the company’s financial growth. Fox, founded 13 years ago, successfully translated talk radio values to TV, sometimes by directly hiring radio talkers like Sean Hannity. Already, Fox Business counts two radio veterans, Dave Ramsey and Tom Sullivan, as hosts.
Television analysts and some competitors said Mr. Imus, who reportedly reaches millions of radio listeners, would act as a one-man sampling strategy for Fox Business, motivating new viewers to turn on the sometimes hard-to-find network for the first time. In an interview last week about ratings, the executive vice president for the network, Kevin Magee, suggested that was exactly what it needed.
“We have to teach people we exist, and then convince them to find us,” Mr. Magee said. “And then once they do those two things, they have to watch us.”
Fox Business has been closely watched in the media world because when it made its debut in October 2007 it took aim squarely at CNBC, the dominant business news network and part of NBC Universal.
So far the upstart’s audience is measly. Nielsen Media Research estimates that in June, Fox Business was watched by an average of 21,000 people from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., the hours Fox deems its “business day.” That month, CNBC had an average audience about 11 times that size. The country’s other business channel, Bloomberg, is not rated by Nielsen.
News Corporation executives have always cautioned that, as Mr. Magee put it last week, “it’s going to take time” to establish its financial offering as a competitor. Fox Business is not yet a full-service ratings client.
Distribution is one of the key hurdles. Fox Business is viewable in almost 50 million households, a far cry from CNBC’s 97 million. In most of those households, Fox Business is on the digital tier, high on the dial. “People who are desperate to find us have trouble finding us,” Mr. Magee said.
For instance, the network is on Channel 106 in Washington, Channel 144 in St. Louis and Channel 223 in Los Angeles. New York City, the country’s most important financial market, is the only exception, as Fox Business has a prime spot, Channel 43, on the analog portion of Time Warner Cable .
According to people close to the Fox talks, who requested anonymity because the deal is incomplete and could fall apart, “Imus in the Morning” could be shown from 6 to 9 a.m. on Fox Business. Mr. Imus would displace the network’s current morning show, “Money for Breakfast,” which is hosted by Alexis Glick, who is also a vice president at the channel.
Fox doesn’t have to worry much about irritating its current viewers with a change: its audience from 6 to 9 a.m. is too small to be reported, Nielsen said. Nielsen defines the minimum threshold as being one-tenth of one percent of United States households with TV sets. Fox said that other parts of the day have surpassed the minimum threshold on multiple occasions this summer.
The talks with Mr. Imus would have been inconceivable little more than two years ago, when he was fired from CBS Radio after he was widely criticized for joking about the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” on the air. MSNBC, which like CNBC is a unit of NBC Universal, also canceled its simulcast of the show, saying that Mr. Imus “went so far over the line that it was time.”
About six months later, he was hired by Citadel Broadcasting to resume his radio talk show.
Mr. Imus would add a jolt of star power to Fox Business, but it is hard to tell how much. His simulcast by RFD-TV, short for Rural Free Delivery, has reached a daily average of 49,000 viewers year-to-date, according to Nielsen. RFD is available in about 40 million homes.
But RFD clearly lacks the promotional abilities of Fox. It may also lack the ability to fully compensate him. The New York Daily News said last week that RFD owes Mr. Imus “multiple millions of dollars in back pay.” Patrick Gottsch, the founder of RFD, did not respond to interview requests, and his lawyer said he had declined to comment.
Mr. Imus also declined to comment. His spokesman said “there are no financial issues” between Mr. Imus and RFD.
When reports of the talks with Mr. Imus surfaced this month, some people inside and outside Fox questioned whether the network would be ceding financial news turf during critical morning hours. The network would have to proceed with caution because its contracts with cable operators specify that it is a business-oriented channel.
But people close to the talks said that radio’s format lent itself to flexibility, as it includes local breaks for news and commercials that could be filled by business news updates. Fox would also presumably include business graphics on the screen.
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Mr. Imus has had several Fox Business hosts as guests on his radio show in recent weeks, including Ms. Glick and Neil Cavuto. In between comments about his ongoing cancer treatments and his ranch for children, the radio host has talked repeatedly about the greed of “Wall Street crooks.”
Mr. Imus and Roger Ailes, the Fox News chief, have known each other for decades.
“This is a characteristically genius move for Roger Ailes,” said Bob Sherman, a friend of Mr. Imus’s and one of his former bosses. “He can now bank the network’s marketing dollars.”