By Ronald Grover
Feb 24 (Reuters) - Maria Bartiromo, whose high-profile Wall Street coverage earned her the nickname "Money Honey" during two decades on business channel CNBC, now takes aim at her former employer as host of a new morning show on the rival Fox Business Network.
"Opening Bell with Maria Bartiromo" will air from 9-11 am ET (1400-1600 GMT), replacing "Varney & Co" anchored by Stuart Varney, who moves to the following two-hour period.
Luring Bartiromo away from CNBC was a high-stakes gamble by Fox and Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, to boost the ratings of the six-year-old business channel.
Fox Business increased its ratings and added homes to which it is telecast but still trails CNBC. Over the last year, it averaged 54,000 for its 9 am to 5 pm schedule, according to Nielsen ratings data, compared with the 200,000 that CNBC averages. CNBC is seen in 95 million homes compared with 77 million for Fox Business.
"I was at the top of my game at CNBC, but they made me a great offer," Bartiromo said in an interview, referring to Fox. "They were terrific at CNBC, but I am happiest when I am helping to build a brand."
Bartiromo's show stands a good chance of becoming the network's top-ranked show, and should lift its ratings and encourage other cable operators to carry Fox Business, said Brad Adgate, senior vice-president and research director for Horizon Media.
"Only a handful of business news reporters have as high a profile," Adgate said.
Bartiromo, who would not discuss her contract, says Fox influenced her decision to bolt by also offering her a Sunday morning business-oriented show on the Fox News Channel. That show, which has not yet been given a name, is expected to begin later in the first quarter, Fox said.
With both shows, Bartiromo says she intends to move away from the formula of interviewing chief executive talking heads that is prevalent on most business programs. Instead, she says she will focus on having guests who are strategic planners, stock pickers and money managers, and others discussing issues that are reshaping the economy.
"She's got one of the best Rolodexs around, and she'll get great people," said Kevin Magee, Fox Business' executive vice president. "But you can get market data anywhere, on your wristwatch. You need someone with her kind of perspective to explain it."