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Liz Claman tries to raise Fox Business Network’s profile -- and her own

Liz Claman recently popped up on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” in a spoof about the buzzed-about website Chatroulette, which connects random strangers -- often doing strange things -- via webcam. In the skit, Stewart encounters a parade of top TV journalists trolling the site: household names like Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Keith Olbermann . . . and yes, Claman, a news anchor at Fox Business Network.

The driven television journalist has taken to Twitter and “The Daily Show” to raise her profile and whip up excitement -- and viewers -- for the 2 1/2 -year-old Fox Business Network. Last week, she went on Stewart’s show and compared Wall Street banks to greedy casino high rollers.

Ditching a prominent position at an established cable channel to take a flier on an upstart -- even one that is a pet project of media mogul Rupert Murdoch -- might not seem like a smart business move. But nearly three years ago, Claman left CNBC, her home of nine years, and bet her career on Fox Business.

“I am what some might think would be the least likely person to be at Fox -- a Berkeley graduate, tree-hugging, West Coast, free-market, liberal Jew from L.A. who puts bricks in the toilet to save water,” said the Beverly Hills native with a husky laugh that would make Mae West proud. “But I like the attitude and personality of this place.”

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Fox Business is available to about half of all pay TV subscribers in the country, or about 50 million homes. Murdoch’s initial strategy for the channel -- hiring respected news anchors, including Claman, and making business news more accessible to average Joes -- has not paid dividends. Industry observers haven’t figured out why. Is it because financial news is too narrow a niche to support CNBC, Fox Business and Bloomberg TV? Or is the network simply lost in such remote outposts as Channel 466?

“It’s a tough slog,” said Kevin Magee, executive vice president of Fox Business Network. “We have to find a way for people to seek us out.”

During the last seven months, Fox Business has added big personalities to amp up the volume: radio talk show host Don Imus, former ABC News contrarian John Stossel and former CNBC star Charlie Gasparino. The moves, Fox executives say, are helping to increase the audience.

“Inertia is always a huge factor in cable television. CNBC is a powerful brand; if you have been using Crest toothpaste for 25 years you are not going to switch to Colgate,” said Derek Baine, an analyst with the consulting firm SNL Kagan. Fox executives, he said, “in the beginning were talking big that they were going to knock CNBC out of the box. Now they are emphasizing growing more slowly.”

Slow doesn’t appeal to Claman.

An avid skier and runner, she is the fourth of five children of an actress and a prominent Beverly Hills urologist, and a mother of two. Claman has long relished action -- and the spotlight.

“She was always just a natural personality, effervescent and enthusiastic. She loved to pull focus her way,” said Claman’s older sister, Danielle Gelber, a top programming executive at premium channel Showtime.

In the late 1970s, adolescent Liz would pretend to be Barbara Walters, interviewing family and friends. Not long after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1986, she got an internship at KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles and worked as a production assistant, delivering scripts and being a gofer for Paula Zahn, who was then a local anchor.

Claman sent VHS audition tapes around the country and even flew to Columbus, Ohio, to pitch herself as a reporter. The station manager there gave her a job.

“I remember being in Columbus, and after covering some lightning strike at the Ohio State Fair, looking in the mirror and crying, and saying to myself, when am I going to get to the network?” Claman said. It would take a decade.

CNBC days

In 1998, after stints in Cleveland and Boston, she moved to the New York area, following her boyfriend (now her husband and a CNN senior producer). She joined CNBC, where she would go on to co-host popular shows such as “Morning Call.”

She won legions of fans, some of whom seem smitten with Claman and her curves. She’s been called the “Red Fox,” and a video clip on YouTube teases: “Liz Claman: Leggy & Busty.”

Still, she wants to be known as more than a red-headed news vixen.

In an industry of sound bites and often meaningless prattle, Claman’s business knowledge and attention to detail stand out. Claman was tenacious in her pursuit of the investing world’s biggest name -- Warren Buffett. One day in 2006, he returned her call from his office in Omaha.

“I said, ‘C’mon, let me come to Omaha and see how you find true value in a business.’ And he said, ‘Well, tell me about yourself.’ I said, ‘I feel like I’m very down to earth.’ And he said, “Really, where are you from?” . . . . And I had to say, “Beverly Hills . . . but with an explanation.”

Claman told the story of her father, Dr. Morris Claman, the Canadian-born son of a penniless Russian Jewish immigrant and scrap metal dealer. Buffett, she said, “loved the story of how my dad worked his way up, fought his way into medical school when there was anti-Semitism, and became a very successful surgeon.”

Buffett invited Claman to Omaha. She and a crew spent six hours with him, producing an in-depth piece called “The Billionaire Next Door.” Buffett was her first “get,” a year later, during Fox Business’ inaugural week in October 2007.

Last summer, Claman was in full-throttle mode when she parachuted into Northern California for Fox Business’ “Three Days in the Valley,” a marathon of interviews with top executives of such influential Bay Area technology companies as Google, Cisco, Intel and Yahoo. The parade of powerful chief executives that trekked to the Intel Museum to chat with Claman was impressive, given the channel’s small audience. During the three days, Claman conducted 37 live interviews about the economy and technology trends.

“As soon as I heard that Liz would be conducting the interview I signed up,” said Yahoo Chief Executive Carol Bartz. “Some people feel that they have to jump all over you but that doesn’t make for a good interview. Not Liz, she charms you into confessing everything.”

Later, Claman agreed her style was different.

“I do ask the tough questions, but I’m not in your face, I am not trying to make news myself,” Claman said. “I think a lot of broadcast journalists get confused, particularly in cable, about what is the real story. Is it you, or the people who made the news?”

However, Claman left CNBC, in part, because she wasn’t a headliner. The network heavily promoted Maria Bartiromo, Erin Burnett and others, leaving fewer opportunities for Claman to shine. She continues to compete with Bartiromo from afar; Claman’s “Countdown to the Closing Bell” runs at the same time as Bartiromo’s show.

Although Fox Business is struggling for viewers, some industry watchers wonder whether its influence will increase after an existing deal between CNBC and the Wall Street Journal expires. In 2012, the Fox channel will be able to trumpet its ties to the Journal, and Journal reporters will be able to appear regularly on Fox.

Claman said she took the job knowing it could take five years for Fox Business to become a force.

A smaller stage

But how is it possible that a reporter who cried buckets of frustrated tears when she was a twentysomething rookie desperate to get noticed could be content on a small stage? Claman has mellowed “a little” during her two decades in journalism, she said, adding she is happy with her life and Fox.

“I can definitely see that I’ve succeeded. I wish my dad could see this,” she said as her eyes welled up with tears. (He died three years ago.) “So if he can’t see, then at least my kids see it. I want my kids to look at a mother, a woman, who gets out there and contributes.”

meg.james@latimes.com


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