'W$W' shook off dowdy format

November 16, 1990|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

It's not surprising that, as Louis Rukeyser remembers, "Wall Street Week" did not start out as the program you see every Friday these days.

"It was supposed to be much more educational," Rukeyser said in a recent interview.

In 1970, what was then called the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting took the educational requirement of its state TC charter much more literally. It wouldn't even show a movie without some pipe-smoking scholar coming on before or after to explain the significance. So of course it wanted Rukeyser to lecture on the complexities of his chosen subject.

"But, within a few weeks, we had the format sorted out," Rukeyser recalled, meaning that he had taken center stage in the weekly half hour, a position he would never relinquish.

It is also not surprising that "Wall Street Week," whose formal title is actually "Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser," is not content with one program to celebrate its 20th birthday.

It's getting two -- one tonight at the program's normal 8:30 time, a gala panel of "WSW" favorites broadcasting from New York's Tavern on the Green restaurant, and an hour retrospective that will air Monday at 10 p.m. Both can be seen on what is now Maryland Public Broadcasting, Channels 22 and 67.

Rukeyser, who spent more than a decade as a reporter for Baltimore newspapers, domestically for The Evening Sun, abroad for The Sun, was a rarity in 1970, a network economic reporter, when MPT's Ann Darlington approached him with the idea for "Wall Street Week."

The show took the summer off and didn't go nationwide on PBS. Instead it was distributed to East Coast stations on the Eastern Educational Network.

"I was still working for ABC," Rukeyser said. "They graciously allowed me to do this show. I'm sure they didn't think it would last more than a few weeks. Who wanted to watch a half-hour show on Wall Street?"

In 1970, Rukeyser reminded, the Vietnam war was raging and, when the counter-culture talked about greening America, they weren't referring to dollar bills.

"Money had a bad name," Rukeyser said. "But I think people realize now that it's a lot easier to accomplish their social goals if the economy is healthy."

Indeed, Rukeyser thinks that in the ensuing two decades -- he quit ABC in 1973, the year "W$W" went national -- the country's citizenry has realized the central importance of the economy and has sought out a literacy in that subject.

That's part of the reason why, year after year, "Wall Street Week" has been the most popular program with PBS stations. It's also because it's easy to find well-heeled underwriters for the show.

And, though the ratings have declined, its audience still keeps it above the PBS average.

L Research shows that two-thirds of its viewers own no stocks.

Clearly, they watch in part because Rukeyser is a genuine TV star, indeed a cultural icon.

Rukeyser has done something unusual on TV; by wearing his considerable ego on his sleeve, he has made it an asset.

But it's also because the vast majority of viewers want to be accompanied by someone as cocksure as Rukeyser when they wade into financial waters. They'd love to have him along, not just when they're being intimidated by a jargon-spouting stockbroker, but when they're applying for a car loan. His above-the-fray attitude is central to his appeal.

Monday's hour also reviews predictions made on the program, finding numerous correct ones. Considering the number of guests in two decades, it's not surprising that a few have hit the target.

The bad calls tended to be from those who predicted gloom and doom. Rukeyser noted that such prognosticators seem always to have loyal followings, pointing out that the show came through the years when people were being advised to buy gold, hoard food and learn survival techniques.

"I'm a short-term pessimist, but a long-term optimist," Rukeyser said of his own beliefs, which are in constant demand on the high-priced lecture circuit.

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