MPT replacing Rukeyser on financial show after 32 years

`Wall St. Week' host rejects reduced role

March 22, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The 3-decade-long Louis Rukeyser era at Maryland Public Television is coming to an acrimonious close, as the pioneering financial journalist is being forced out of the anchor's chair of the program that bears his name.

Starting this fall, MPT's signature program, Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser, will have a new format, a new name and two new anchors. Rukeyser will be replaced by Fortune magazine editorial director Geoffrey Colvin, whose publication will co-produce the show, and another anchor yet to be named. The arrangement is intended to shore up what public television executives describe as an aging asset.

Speaking yesterday from his home in Connecticut, Rukeyser, 69, termed the new show without him "somebody's idea of a bad April Fools' joke." When MPT President and CEO Robert J. Shuman surprised him with the news this week, offering him a diminished role as a senior commentator, Rukeyser said, "I decided I didn't want to have anything further to do with them."

The new show, titled Wall Street Week with Fortune, represents the biweekly financial publication's most visible broadcasting effort since its short-lived television magazine with corporate sibling CNN.

"It's the highest-rated business show on television," John Needham, president of Fortune Multimedia, said of Wall Street Week. "We also think it fits so nicely with our editorial approach and resources. It provides the same kind of synthesis on a weekly basis."

MPT's Shuman said he regretted the messiness of the transition to a new concept for the show. But he depicted the partnership with Fortune as an exciting way to keep Wall Street Week viable as financial coverage proliferates on cable channels and the Internet.

And so, with a three-page news release that made one fleeting reference to Rukeyser, MPT is poised to enter a season without the erudite economics correspondent for the first time in 32 years. Rukeyser's contract ends in late June.

As they learned of the move, first reported in yesterday's editions of The Sun, some financial and news professionals denounced the idea of involuntarily upending the man most responsible for shaping today's television coverage of the economy and financial markets.

"The whole show was Lou, in my opinion," said former PBS President Lawrence K. Grossman. "It's going to be very difficult to launch a new series without Lou as the chief honcho on it."

Others compared Maryland Public Television unfavorably to the ABC and Disney officials who were secretly working this winter to replace Ted Koppel and ABC News' Nightline with late night talk show host David Letterman.

"The executives of MPT make ABC look like the State Department," said CNN financial news anchor Lou Dobbs, whose cable network, like Fortune, is owned by AOL Time Warner Inc. "It's an extremely ungrateful act and graceless act."

But Shuman contended that other PBS affiliates have displayed waning enthusiasm for Rukeyser's program. Surveys of PBS members reflected that it had dropped off the list of their 10 favorite programs on the network, he said. The demographics of Rukeyser's audience also skewed older, primarily to viewers older than 60, he said.

"It's a business decision that we have to make if we were going to be able to continue the franchise for public television," Shuman said. "Without it, I just don't think that there would be a show next fall."

Long before there was CNBC's Squawk Box - before there even was a CNBC - there was Wall Street Week. The 30-minute program reflects Rukeyser's dry wit and his abiding faith in the long-term health of the financial markets. His opening essays frequently advise viewers to find good stocks and hold on to them. He attracts guests from the highest echelons of corporate and investment elite, and subjects them to polite but firm questioning, with an occasional puckish aside.

It's not clear exactly how much ratings and finances - the chief forces behind the decisions on commercial networks and cable channels - affected the status of Rukeyser's show. According to PBS, it had dipped to 13th-most watched on the network, with an estimated average of 1.37 million viewers each week this season.

Those levels are still far above the audiences for cable shows, and it remains one of the most widely carried programs by PBS stations, which make independent decisions about what to broadcast. Wall Street Week is available to 98 percent of the viewing public in the continental United States, a PBS spokesman said.

The program cost Maryland Public Television approximately $5 million annually to produce, with a significant seven-figure chunk of that going to Rukeyser's production company for his fee and other expenses. But the show generated a low seven-figure profit for MPT from corporate underwriters. Brent Gunts, a former MPT official who secured underwriting for the show from 1975 to 1992, said the program was always the largest source of such income for the state system.

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