Willard was dressed in dark blue jeans, an open-neck white shirt (fashionably untucked, natch) and a blazer. He took a deep breath and settled in on a stool, ready to begin work.
Not quite a foot to his left, co-anchor Rebecca Gomez sat quietly, waiting for the red light to go on. As glamorous as a movie star on a red carpet, she wore a striking turquoise dress and black boots.
The day's guest line-up consisted of adult-video-star-turned-wine-merchant Savanna Samson, professional skateboarder Tony Hawk, Wenner Media's Matt Mastrangelo, chef Rocco DiSpirito, banking analyst Tom Brown and Fox News Channel's Courtney Friel.
No Wall Street CEOs in the bunch, you may have observed. An accent on entrepreneurs, you should notice.
As Willard said, "This show is about the business of life."
A new breed
Welcome to "Happy Hour," a new breed of news show, where a younger version of "Regis and Kelly" meets "Cheers" with the breeziness of "Entourage."
The closest thing I've seen to it on TV, in terms of combining a fast pace with conversations and information, has been ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" and "Cold Pizza" as well as Fox's own "The Best Damned Sports Show Period." These shows all have the same kind of freewheeling, informative style. (Interestingly, CNBC, FBN's main rival, seemed to pluck parts of ESPN's "SportsCenter" for its popular morning show "Squawk Box," and now FBN is showing an ESPN influence, too.)
It didn't take long for "Happy Hour" to make an impact. Newsweek's sharp-eyed media writer Johnnie Roberts wrote a feature about the show after only its first week.
(Fox's parent, News Corp. , is buying Dow Jones So. Inc. , which owns MarketWatch, the publisher of this column.)
"I noticed a lot of (business) conversations happen at a golf course or over drinks at a bar," said Brian Jones, Fox's senior vice president of operations, who conceived the idea for the show while he was sitting in an Upper West Side bar.
When Jones and Kevin Magee, Fox News's executive vice president, couldn't find a suitable venue in the Wall Street district, their colleague Valerie Alexander suggested the Bull and Bear. "They already had a ticker," Jones said with a laugh, noting that Fox doesn't pay a fee to its host.
The show is a central part of FBN's daunting game plan: to make financial news fun for Main Street. Instead of reciting dry numbers in earnings reports, "Happy Hour" is more likely to explain what the news means to shareholders and the general public.
"Happy Hour" looks to me like the new channel's breakout hit. Its time slot is ideal, starting an hour after the frenzy of the market close, when investors want a little entertainment after a hard day. Liz Claman's afternoon show will provide a slick lead-in, to boot.
FBN could also use "Happy Hour" for marketing opportunities. I wouldn't be surprised if the show took to the road someday, heading to cities with Fox affiliates. FBN could also hold online contests to see which bar is lucky enough to host the show.
"(Executive Producer) Terry Baker has done a great job," Jones said.
When I visited the "Happy Hour" set on Thursday, I glimpsed an atmosphere of enforced chaos, which is the main idea. Because everyone is constantly crunched for time, the energy level is sky high. Since the show is so new, the people involved are terrified that something might go wrong or euphoric that they pulled it off again. Mainly, everyone on the set acts a little nuts, but happily so.
Gmez and Willard seem to get along, and they complement each other well. "I put a lot of pressure on myself to get everything right," Gomez says. Willard chimes in, "I go home and watch the show and see everything I did wrong."
Willard may have more in common with his CNBC counterpart Dylan Ratigan than either network would like to acknowledge. They're the same age and quite knowledgeable about Wall Street. Both came out of writing jobs (Ratigan from Bloomberg, Willard from TheStreet.com ) and, most of all, both are hyperkinetic imagine two Jim Cramers in training. At the end of the day, Willard even has the energy to play in a Neil Young cover band called Museum of the Horse. (And his favorite Young album is "On the Beach.")
Every aspect of the show contributes to a high-energy approach. The rat-a-tat-tat interview segments don't last long. Everyone, from the anchors to the technicians, is working with one eye on what's happening now and the other on what lies immediately ahead. (Perhaps the most valuable player of that day's show was a cheerful blur named Megan Hawkins, a booker/producer who never stops running, giving instructions or smiling. "Happy Hour" also has the most efficient, polite technicians I've ever seen on the set of a TV show.)
For now, Gomez, Willard and FBN are learning on the fly. They're going to make mistakes of enthusiasm, and that's how it should be at a start-up. The death knell for "Happy Hour" will be complacency or predictability. Once the show gives a whiff of being scripted, it will be ready for inclusion on the "Jump the Shark" Web site.
So far, Gomez has reached two useful conclusions. "When things go really smoothly, it's a boring show," she said.
Then she looked around at people at the bar, who often offer to buy her and Willard drinks after they finish a broadcast. Gomez smiled patiently. "When I leave here," she said, "the last place I want to be is at a bar!"
Time Warner speculation
The Times of London reported Friday that Time Warner Chairman and CEO Dick Parsons will soon announce his resignation. All Time Warner said was that it won't happen in the next week.
If Parsons leaves, the real story is what happens next. Parsons, for his part, seems ready to pencil himself in as a candidate to succeed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has, by the way, recently appeared on the covers of Time Warner's magazines Time and Fortune and might be inclined, anyway, to support Parsons. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, anyone?)
For investors, the larger issue is whether Jeff Bewkes, Parsons' top lieutenant, would succeed him and what he might do. Bewkes, who successfully ran Time Warner's HBO unit, might not be tied to the company's rich past. He may conclude that some businesses, such as Time Inc., don't belong in the portfolio any longer and could sell off some subsidiaries.
MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you like or dislike about "Happy Hour"?
MONDAY REPORT CARD: Journalists did a good job responding to the news Friday that two prominent CEOs, Merrill Lynch's Stan O'Neal and Parsons may soon be leaving their lofty positions. It's always a challenge for a journalist to balance the goals of getting it first and getting it right.
READER RESPONDS to : "I have been reading New York for about 1.5 yrs. and agree it is (a) good read, not your normal stories and def. great quotes and news. I know natives are too hip to appreciate (it), but from N.E. Pennsylvania, (it's a) good shot of 'Big Apple' to me. I have a 19-year-old daughter in Manhattan and like to see milieu she is in." Jos. Halloran
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By Jon Friedman