NEW YORK — Twice last week CNBC, the nation's most popular business network, stayed on pre-taped programming when important economic news broke in the evening while its two smaller rivals were covering the events live.
Bloomberg Television and Fox Business Network both extended live coverage on Friday night, when the Standard & Poor's Ratings Services downgraded the United States' debt rating for the first time. The scenario was similar the previous Sunday night, when President Barack Obama announced an agreement with legislative leaders to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
CNBC noted that it ran a Sunday special featuring Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's first public comments on the debt downgrade and was pre-empting programming for a two-hour special Monday on the volatile economic markets.
Fox was quick to leap, however, running a full-page ad in Monday's Wall Street Journal with onscreen pictures from July 31, contrasting its live debt ceiling coverage with the show CNBC was airing, "How I Made My Millions."
"It shows that we are always looking out for the audience, always trying to find an inroad and, frankly, our competition isn't working as hard as we are," said Kevin Magee, executive vice president at Fox Business Network.
The incidents illustrate the dangers faced by a news network heavily geared to the business day when news of particular interest happens outside of business hours.
"It is essential for us to be in a position to always be able to get on the air, to always serve the viewer when there's news," said Andrew Morse, head of Bloomberg Television in the U.S.
On Friday, Bloomberg made special arrangements for a two-hour live show anchored by Michael McKee and shown through use of a remote truck in northern Maine. McKee had been covering the annual economics and fishing trip organized by Cumberland Advisers in Maine.
During the debt ceiling announcement the previous Sunday, Bloomberg was able to simulcast coverage of the event in the United States through its Asian television partner.
Fox went live for the debt announcement on July 31 with chief anchor Neil Cavuto. It was in taped programming from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday, but broke in periodically to report on the debt downgrade and ran the news as a "crawl" on its screen. At 10 p.m., the network aired a live hour on the issue. Fox usually runs programming pre-taped earlier in the day in its prime time, and this week will be on live in the evening, Magee said.
"It's an enormously important story," Magee said. "I couldn't keep people off the air if I wanted to."
CNBC spokesman Brian Steel noted that before it put a "60 Minutes" rerun on the air at 8 p.m. on Friday, its anchors discussed the possibility of a downgrade based on reporting that it might be imminent.
"CNBC is always working on-air and online and that's why hours before S&P made their official announcement, CNBC had already broken and analyzed the downgrade news," he said.
CNBC's Kate Kelly reported before 4:30 p.m. on Friday that "the U.S. government is expecting a possible credit rating downgrade as early as this afternoon."
Bloomberg's Morse said his organization was using similar reports to prepare for coverage that night. CNBC's rivals noted that talking about the possibility is different than reporting when it actually happens.
Both Bloomberg and Fox are in millions fewer homes than CNBC, long the leader in televised business news. But as evidenced by Fox's Wall Street Journal ad, they hope to take advantage of an opening.
"There's a huge opportunity for us to differentiate ourselves," Morse said.