Even as ratings fall, Rukeyser's stock is still rising Still Mr. Wall Street?

April 25, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Staff Writer

After more than two decades on the air, Wall $treet Week has acquired a timeless quality. The intro's clattering stock ticker, the homey studio set and the puns of Louis Rukeyser, television's longest-running host -- little has changed.

That approach, illuminating the mysteries of high finance through casual conversation and humor, has always supplied the charm of Wall $treet Week and the silver-haired Mr. Rukeyser. But these days, it also hints at some problems.

The show is seen by fewer people than 10 years ago, and competition from cable networks threatens to steal more viewers. Some in the financial industry also call the half-hour show anachronistic: As investors flock to mutual funds, it remains a stock picker's show with some economic overtones.

Still, Mr. Rukeyser has a loyal core of followers. His show, broadcast from Owings Mills and seen in up to 3.3 million households each Friday, remains Maryland Public Television's cash cow. And the 60-year-old Mr. Rukeyser has built a multimillion-dollar business empire by running the country's most popular business newsletter and by speaking to investors across the nation, earning up to $50,000 for an appearance.

"He's a one-person industry, and it's all based on his personality," said Richard Swindle of Mercer University in Atlanta, who recently hired Mr. Rukeyser to participate in a daylong meeting of business and civic leaders for $35,000.

Friend and foe hail Mr. Rukeyser for his role in bringing business and finance out of the closet, while luring badly needed sponsors and viewers to public television.

Mr. Rukeyser, ABC-TV's first economics correspondent, was an instant hit with Wall $treet Week. Within two years, the show was being carried nationally. As its audience grew -- to nearly 10 million viewers -- the show became the way that many on Wall Street capped off their week.

Today, though, cable offers entire networks aimed at Mr. Rukeyser's audience. CNBC, for example, focuses entirely on business, and CNN offers a variety of business news programs. That has cut into Wall $treet Week's ratings, which have fallen from 4.3 percent of the households with televisions in 1982-1983 to 2.5 percent last season.

Despite that drop, the show retains the loyalty of many high-powered Wall Street analysts who are featured guests -- and of viewers.

"Wall $treet Week is an old friend now," said Ann Darlington, the show's creator and now a free-lance broadcasting consultant in Baltimore. "The audience really doesn't like too many changes in an old friend."

Yet that core audience is not only dwindling in relation to other shows; it also seems to be aging. Mr. Rukeyser says the dozens of letters he receives each week tell otherwise, but financial and media observers regard the show's typical viewer as a retired man looking for some investment advice.

"It's certainly an effective show for certain segments of the market, such as the elderly," said sometime guest A. Michael Lipper of Lipper Analytical Services, which tracks the performance of mutual funds. That may be because of Wall $treet Week's un flagging emphasis on stocks, which retirees tend to have more time to study.

These days, though, mutual funds have become the investment of choice, and that's not reflected in the show, said Sheldon Jacobs, editor of The No-Load Fund Investor newsletter. "I've been arguing that point with the producers for years. They have a bias toward stocks -- but it's their show."

Mutual fund managers do appear regularly on the show, but Mr. Jacobs noted that they usually are invited to explain why they pick certain stocks for their funds. Fund comparison, possibly the most useful service for the average investor, gets little attention, he said.

Even the show's stock-picking tips could bring trouble for naive investors.

Investor's Digest, for example, found in the 1980s that some stocks are bid up just before the show, rise an average of more than 2 percent on the next Monday and then slowly deflate over the next year.

The reason: The show publishes a list of future guests, said Norman Fosback, publisher of Investor's Digest. Wall Street insiders know the managers' favorites and know that the managers will tout them on the show. Anticipating that many viewers will buy the recommended stocks when the market reopens, they buy those stocks in the weeks preceding a manager's appearance, wait for prices to jump the next Monday and then sell quickly.

That research earned Mr. Fosback much criticism from Wall $treet Week's host. But Mr. Rukeyser has since acknowledged that the show can affect stock prices. In a letter marketing his newsletter, for example, he notes that stocks mentioned on the show sometimes have been run up and aren't such good buys. That's a good reason to buy the newsletter, the marketing material says.

Still, Mr. Rukeyser said such complaints overlook the fact that Wall $treet Week is not really about stock-picking. What matters, he said, is the show's overview of economic trends.

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