Television was once the great wasteland of economic and business reporting. But today it's becoming lush with new programs on economic and business events of the day.
The networks and cable TV stations are capitalizing on the recent demand for business news. Ten years ago, the Public Broadcasting System's ''Wall Street Week'' seemed to have the stage to itself. But the last two years have seen a horde of new entrants to the television scene: ''The Wall Street Journal Report, '' ''The Nightly Business Report,'' and ''Enterprise,'' all from PBS; the US Chamber of Commerce's ''BizNet News Today,'' distributed by Modern Satellite News, a cable company; Cable News Network's ''Moneyline''; and Financial News Network, which broadcasts financial news seven hours a day.
And starting March 1, yet another show, ''Business Times,'' will air weekdays between 6 and 8 a.m. (the second hour a repetition of the first) on a sports-oriented cable medium, Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
The question is, does the American public have enough interest to support yet another business television show? Not surprisingly, James C. Crimmins, president and editor in chief of ''Business Times,'' thinks it does. ''Six million people read the Wall Street Journal every day, and [business] is a subject that interests many more,'' he notes. He cites a survey by A.C. Nielsen & Co. which found that the best time periods for reaching business executives (age 25-54, with salaries over $30,000) is between 6 and 8 a.m., and occasionally between 8 and 9:30 p.m.
But Paul F. Kagan, a cable television financial analyst and president of Paul Kagan Associates, is more skeptical. ''Business may be getting a bigger audience ,'' but public interest remains ''very narrow.''
The number of business news shows, he continues, is not entirely due to a sudden thirst for business news. ''The television industry is simply looking for another audience to reach,'' says Mr. Kagan, ''and business executives are an untapped audience.''
Business shows have multiplied since cable television came into its own, about five years ago. Says Philip Corvo, executive director of the National Association of Television Program Executives, ''Cable is a good test to find whether there's a market for a new type of show. Everyone is trying to grab a foothold into the networks through cable.'' He cites health channels and weather channels as examples of other TV experiments.
The demographics, however, do not bode well for business television shows right now, Mr. Kagan says. ''The best way to reach busy executives has historically not been through TV,'' he says. ''The heavy TV watcher is older, younger, more female, and with a lower income than the audience [business shows] are targeting.''
If the early results of Financial News Network - which lured Robert Metz away from the New York Times - are any indication, ''Business Times,'' which will rely on commercials, may be heading into troubled waters. FNN, the only network devoted entirely to financial news, now reaches 7.1 million homes. But it has had trouble getting advertising. Launched in November of 1981, it reported a loss of more than $4 million for the year ended Aug. 31, on advertising revenues of $714,023. But the network, undaunted, plans to expand from a 7-hour broadcast - from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays - to 10 hours (starting at 7 a.m.) by July.
The last 12 months haven't been kind to other business television shows, either. Time Inc.'s ''Money Matters'' flopped. Reuters never got a syndicated weekly for investors off the ground. The Gannett Company pulled Louis Rukeyser's ''Business Journal'' off the air after its first 26 weeks, because there wasn't enough viewer interest.
But Mr. Crimmins at ''Business Times'' contends his show already has a sizable potential audience, since it will hook up with the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, a 24-hour cable network that televises sports events and news. ESPN now reaches 23 million homes, and ''Business Times'' expects to get 230,000 viewers right off the bat. (''You can get 1 percent of anything,'' Mr. Crimmins says.) A survey of ESPN viewers done by Reymer & Gersin indicated that closer to 630,000 would watch a comprehensive business news program.
But getting an audience may not be as simple as the statistics say. ''The audience 'Business Times' is trying to reach - the affluent, upscale business man or woman - is probably not going to be glued to the tube at that hour,'' says Thomas King, president of the American Business Press, the association for business publications.
In addition, ''6 to 8 a.m. is not a high viewing time for hard-news shows, but mainly for soft news like 'The Today Show' and 'Good Morning America,' '' observes John Reidy, a cable television analyst at Drexel Burnham Lambert, the brokerage house.
Noel Sweitzer, president of Housing Development Services Inc., a Los Angeles-based housing and finance consulting organization, disagrees. Up every morning by 6 o'clock, she gets her first splash of morning news on ''The Today Show.'' If there were a hard-news alternative, she would take it.
''I don't like listening to those cutesy profiles on 'The Today Show,' or through the commercials,'' she comments. ''If a news show hit the hard news, and focused on specific economic events in detail, I'd buy it.''
''Business Time's'' strategy is to get the executive to dress in front of television instead of the bedroom mirror. To do this, it will have splashy computer graphics and a star-studded cast, including editors from Newsweek, Business Week, The Economist of London, and National Public Radio.
It will have 40 to 60 ''stories'' an hour, not just about Wall Street, but about international and governmental developments affecting business. It has an exclusive TV rights agreement with the Financial Times of London, and will receive stories from its 100 reporters in 90 countries via satellite. The hour will be punctuated with longer (4- to 6-minute) profiles of business leaders and their strategies, economists, and high technology (including Japanese technology).
Because of its diverse but hard-news approach, Mr. Crimmins thinks it will be competing more with publications like the Wall Street Journal and Business Week than with other television news shows.
But Lawrence Armour, director of corporate relations at Dow Jones & Co., which publishes the Wall Street Journal, says the new show won't cut into the Journal's circulation. ''The person who reads the Journal can't do without it,'' he comments. ''He needs to refer back to it, take it home, and reread the story he could only skim in the morning. You can't do that with the electronic medium.''
Mr. King at American Business Press agrees. ''Electronic news is very soon gone, and it's irretrievable.''
Far from being worried, Mr. Armour thinks business television shows will increase the Journal's circulation. ''They will make more and more people interested in business,'' he predicts, ''and will enlarge the already expanding market for business information. That can only help everyone involved in business journalism.''