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Why Today Is the Most Important Day in Fox Business Network's History

Little-watched cable net will have a massive audience for GOP debate

Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo will moderate the FBN GOP debate. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images

Ever since its inception, Fox Business Network has struggled to gain a foothold in the financial world, but the eight-year-old channel will have its best opportunity to break out Tuesday when it airs the next Republican Primary debate.

The first three Republican primary debates have averaged 20 million viewers, resulting in viewership records for Fox News, CNN and CNBC. Tuesday night will give FBN something it hasn't had: a massive audience to promote itself.

With FBN looking at a record audience, the network is making sure that everyone will be able to watch it. Like some of the recent debates—though not CNBC—FBN will offer a free livestream. It's also going one step further to broaden its TV reach.

FBN, currently available in 82 million homes, is on a higher tier on many cable and satellite providers. But DirecTV, Suddenlink, Mediacom, Frontier, Wide Open West and Cable One and many National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) member companies will unbundle FBN Tuesday, making it available to its full subscriber base.

The wider-than-normal reach will give FBN a platform to push its business day lineup—especially for moderators Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto, who both have shows on FBN. The network shook up the schedule in May, moving Bartiromo to the early morning and adding Bloomberg TV alum Trish Regan to the afternoon. FBN is coming off its most-watched month in business day ever among total viewers.

While FBN wouldn't comment on what it charged advertisers (reportedly around $170,000 per 30-second spot), the network is expecting the same advertisers that have bought ad time on the previous three GOP debates. And some of them will be first-time buyers on FBN.

Since launch in October 2007, FBN has made little headway against CNBC, the more entrenched network in the financial news space, even after poaching Bartiromo two years ago. Insiders tell us while Bartiromo's ratings have not dented CNBC's, she is a draw for advertisers.

CNBC received poor marks—from the candidates and from the media—for its debate last month. The RNC was so taken aback by the moderators, it shelved its February debate on NBC. A strong performance from FBN could go a long way in luring regular CNBC viewers. FBN has already tweaked its debate format, eschewing opening statements in favor of giving candidates more time for responses to questions.

FBN also thinned the herd, bumping Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee to the 7 p.m. ET undercard debate, which will give the remaining eight candidates more airtime. Moving Christie and Huckabee to the earlier debate should give a boost to ratings there as well.

Though the election isn't for another year, this will already be the fourth Republican primary debate. (There had been nine by this time in the 2012 cycle). And while FBN should expect another hefty turnout, it's fair to wonder whether viewers are starting to get fatigued. The CNBC debate drew nearly 10 million fewer viewers than the first two, and many of them tuned out after the first hour.

Even the main debate draw, Donald Trump, didn't give Saturday Night Live the kind of boost the show experienced during the 2008 race, though Saturday's show was still its best since 2012.

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