It's 4:13 a.m., and curlicues of smoke are wafting through the cobalt-blue set of NY1. A bleary-eyed technician pops out of the control room in a panic, then realizes that Pat Kiernan, the cherub-faced morning anchor, has plugged in a skillet at his anchor desk to cook the early-shift French toast. "Hold on, I have to flip!" Kiernan shouts, scooping up an egg-drenched slice with a spatula moments before he's supposed to read a segment on a Queens bank robber. "Is 30 seconds enough to put on two more?"
The breakfasts -- sometimes pancakes, sometimes Canadian bacon -- began a few months back as atonement after Kiernan overslept two days in a row. "I've now implemented the three-alarm system," he confesses. "And I put one of the alarms across the room."
At 32, Kiernan has been compared to Matt Lauer -- even a young Peter Jennings. But while other morning hosts smilingly trade quips with sidekicks and portly weathermen, Kiernan plows through the news solo with a deadpan delivery that suggests he's no happier about rising before dawn than any of his viewers. Like Letterman or MTV's Kurt Loder, he nods to the conventions of his format -- dutifully giving the weather every ten minutes, introducing the "Rail and Road Report" -- but with a subtly sardonic edge that has made him a media-junkie morning addiction. At a recent early-bird dinner at Blue Ribbon Bakery, he was mobbed like a rock star. "Sorry. Excuse me. I have to interrupt. My wife and I love you!" kvelled a magazine publisher who reached across Kiernan's Reuben to offer his card.
Most of the accolades stem from "In the Papers," a summary of the dailies that uses Kiernan's light touch to full effect. Reading a "Page Six" item doubting the difficulty of magician David Blaine's ice-capades, he clutched a frozen can of soda for the entire eight-minute segment. When a New York Times caption described the conditions in police precincts as "Dickensian," he questioned whether an officer actually used those words. "I was trying to draw out," he says, "how the person who writes the article is not the same person who does the captions." He got e-mails demanding his resignation -- and cheerfully shared them on air the next morning.
Despite the perpetual jet lag, the sunrise shift is the only one Kiernan wants. "At Channel 4, it's the Chuck Scarborough hour," he explains. "On 7, it's Bill Beutel's. At NY1, it's the 4 a.m." In fact, according to the latest Nielsen survey, from 7 to 9 a.m. in the coveted demographic of 25-to-54-year-olds within the five boroughs, NY1 is second only to "The Monster," as Kiernan refers to the Today show, beating out ABC, CBS, and Fox. Since NY1 launched in 1992, "we've become a habit for a lot of people a lot faster than anybody thought we would," says Steve Paulus, the station's general manager. Despite its growing influence, though, the station is still run on a shoestring: Beat reporters double as videographers, and anchors hold self-serve TelePrompTers below camera level to scroll through scripts. "When there's more than one anchor, it's hard," Kiernan offers. "You have to fight over who drives."
After finishing an item on a hospital "embryo mix-up," Kiernan heads for the snack-room couch and watches himself read the weather on a ceiling-mounted monitor. (Ninety percent of the programming -- even Kiernan -- is taped.) He jokes that growing up in Canada, he was all but attached to a tape recorder and microphone. "My biggest thrill was meeting Howard Langdale, the morning man from the AM station in Calgary," he says. "He was doing a live commercial at the Boutique of Leathers." At the behest of his parents (Al, an oil executive, and Carol, a retired teacher), he put down the mike to study business at the University of Alberta, but he gravitated toward the campus radio station, then local TV in Edmonton. In 1996, he sent a tape to the now-defunct Time Warner Full Service Network in New York. "I was in the basement going blind watching thousands of them," says former FSN news director George Kindel. "Suddenly, there's Pat doing a consumer-reports segment, and this fly is flying around. You could see the damn fly landing on him. I've seen very experienced people get flustered when something like that happens, but he handled it with such humor and ease. If I were watching it live in Edmonton, I would have said, 'You know what? This guy, he owns us.' "
Kiernan snagged the anchor gig, only to see the plug get pulled five months later. Two weeks before the end, NY1 hired him to do its "Fortune Business Report." And when the daytime anchor phoned in sick a half-hour before her call time the following summer, Kiernan "won himself the job that day," says Jay Lieberman, his former executive producer.
Though Kiernan keeps a low social profile -- he says he prefers frying up Shake 'N Bake chicken fingers for Dawn, his wife of six years -- he's careful to keep his visibility up. By 4:05 a.m., he's standing in front of a vanity mirror at NY1, applying M.A.C concealer. "My main agenda is to make sure I don't shine," he explains. "Someone said I might want to use lip liner. But I'm not going there." After finishing NY1 at 10 a.m., he crashes until 2, then gets afternoon face time on CNNfn's Street Sweep and ROB-TV, a Canadian business station, and sleeps from 11 p.m. to 3:15 a.m.
It's no secret that Kiernan is network-ready. "He'll get snapped up within a year," says a colleague. "Pat has the opportunity to be one of the first integrated-media -- I don't want to call them anchors," says Kindel. "More like guides. In the new AOL Time Warner universe, the guy who, whatever screen you're looking at, pops up, tells you where things are, what's new since the last time you popped him up. I don't see someone like Rather functioning in that realm."
By 5:45 a.m., Kiernan is back in his seat, shoes off, to tape the "New York Minute," a top-of-the-hour fast-talking roundup of headline stories. As the producer cues the music, a computer crashes; Kiernan will have to go live, but until then he turns back to his skillet. "The International House of Pat!" yells a voice from the control room. "That's right," says Craig Morancie, the executive producer. "Peter Jennings doesn't cook his staff French toast."