Roger Ailes Succeeds Even When He Fails

Eric Starkman, of PR agency Starkman & Associates, argues that Fox Business News is not a complete disaster. One show, in particular, is so dreadful that it makes compelling viewing. So, again, Roger Ailes is a genius! Even when he's not.

So we're clear from the get-go, I admire and respect News Corporation's Roger Ailes. Regardless of what you think of his politics, when it comes to American media, the Fox News founder is an undisputed giant in an industry dominated by creative Lilliputians.

But I admit that I initially struggled to understand why Mr. Ailes gave the green light to "Happy Hour," the late afternoon show on his newly launched Fox Business Network, the cable network which is challenging CNBC's grip on television financial news. In case you haven't seen it — and given FBN's paltry ratings it's quite likely you haven't — "Happy Hour" is a campy show hosted by Cody Willard and Rebecca Gomez, two individuals who, professional credentials aside, look like they belong on the set of an MTV reality show more than in the studio of a serious business news program. Perhaps that's why "Happy Hour" is set in a bar - the "Bull and Bear" pub at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel to be exact.

With the hosts and guests perched on barstools as pints are pulled behind them, "Happy Hour" has the production values of a community access channel in Aurora, IL ("It's Wayne's World, Wayne's World, party time, excellent!"). The banter is light and the guest lineup, umm, eclectic. You may get a CEO or an investment manager or two talking about taxes and assets, but you're more likely to get models, actors, strippers, ice dancers, comedians, filmmakers, more models, actors and … oh, did I mention the strippers?

"Who on earth is going to watch this show?" I wondered aloud the first time I watched the show.

Well, for starters, my colleagues Jeff and Anthony. Every day at 5 p.m., they immediately tune out CNBC and flick on "Happy Hour." These are two of the smartest people I've ever worked with, and they haven't missed a segment since the show began. Another surprising viewer? An erudite editor friend of mine at a major business publication – we're talking a true Renaissance man who studied ancient Greek just so he could read the original works of Plato and Homer – confessed over dinner last week that he's a big fan of the show.

Ok, so "Happy Hour" seems to appeal to highly intelligent people. That answered the "who?", now I just needed to understand the "why?" Jeff and Anthony helped me out on this one:

We can't believe just how bad the show is," said Jeff.

"It's so bad, it's actually brilliant," added Anthony.

Now I get it.

Did you ever see Mel Brooks' "The Producers?" It's a story about a hapless producer and a nebbish accountant who concoct a scheme to make the worst Broadway play ever made. But their show, "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgade," is so outrageous it actually becomes a huge hit. "Happy Hour" is Mr. Ailes' Springtime for Hitler.

Media pundits predicted that FBN would be a near-clone of Mr. Ailes' well-established Fox News Network. In anticipation, CNBC jazzed up its sets and graphics, and billed itself "America's Business Network," mimicking the jingoistic tone of Fox News. But Mr. Ailes didn't make his reputation by following conventional wisdom. He just quietly sat back and let CNBC zig while he cunningly was preparing to zag.

Instead of creating quality programming to go head-to-head with CNBC, he took a different approach to capture the loyalty of those stuck at their desks after the 5:00 whistle blows. He developed the least "business-y" business programming imaginable. "Happy Hour" is ESPN or E! for people who can't get away with watching those channels in the office. Is it playing to more low-brow tastes? Maybe. But as H.L. Mencken once said, "no one has ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."