Still, CNBC is a money machine. It should generate nearly $335.3 million in profit on $584.5 million in revenue this year, according to SNL Kagan Research.
The reason: CNBC has the richest audience in cable. Nielsen puts its viewers' median family income at $63,000, vs. $48,000 for the average cable home. A survey by Mendelsohn Media Research, which includes out-of-home viewers, puts the CNBC median income at $156,000 a year.
The network says that 99% of its viewers own stocks and that eight out of 10 trade more than three times a month.
The audience is growing.
People who enjoy trading stocks are returning to the market — and are hunting for news that they can use — now that the stock market is flirting with record highs.
"Business is growing again," says Christopher Poleway, former president of The Time Inc. Business and Financial Network, which includes Fortune, Money and CNNMoney.com. "Earnings are strong. Innovation is strong. There are a lot of start-ups. There is a lot of venture capital again supporting new ideas. So it's become exciting again."
Leaders in the field say that many people likely will stay focused on business news even when the market cools. That's because the median age of the population is rising, swelling the ranks of people who must save and invest for major expenses, including their kids' education and retirement.
"The big bang (for business news), if there was one, was the realization by people like me that the Social Security system is not going to be around for us when we get ready to retire," Roush says. "We have to take care of our retirement by putting together an IRA or 401(k) plan."
CNBC Business News Senior Vice President Jonathan Wald has a similar view
"There's a nation of investors hungry for this information," he says. "Today's business news is different than it was 10 years ago. It has changed as the markets have, as real estate has, as equities have and as options trading has. Equities trading is up something like 8% this year. Options trading is up 30%. That tells you people are trying to make money in different ways."
It's perfect for the Internet era.
People who take charge of their finances often are overwhelmed by the variety and complexity of investment options and fast-changing valuations. The Web gives them a fighting chance to keep up, with easy access to data, including up-to-the-minute headlines and price changes.
But people with serious money at stake don't want to take chances: They tend to prefer — even on the Web — business news from brand-name media operations that have lots of reporters and solid track records for getting things right.
"You don't see a lot of stand-alone, business-specific blogs," says Peter Himler of Flatiron Communications, a public relations firm that specializes in corporate announcements. "It comes back to the audience for this kind of news. It's still wedded to traditional and mainstream media."
Advertisers, meanwhile, appreciate how business news sites pull in and engage an audience.
"Show me another kind of magazine title or category that has been able to compete so successfully online," Poleway says. "We've had unbelievable success."
Fans will pay for good stuff — even on the Internet.
Internet users famously expect news and information to be free. But people looking for business news have shown they'll pay for information they think might give them an edge.