Wall Street Weak

Channel confusion: Rukeyser's dumping suggests public television is run like commercial networks.

March 23, 2002

WE ARE GETTING confused. Is PBS about to sacrifice its unique niche and become just like any commercial television network?

In the two years that Pat Mitchell has headed PBS, the former CNN executive has moved to give the nation's non-commercial broadcaster a sharper edge.

When Fox canceled American High after just four episodes, PBS picked it up. Other innovations include a Latino series and Bill Moyers' news magazine. Clearly, this is not your grandparents' educational television.

Local program providers don't want to be left behind. That's why Maryland Public Television this week decided to end the 32-year-old Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser.

Never mind that it's the most successful financial advice show in television history and consistently boasts far higher ratings than any of its commercial rivals. The problem is that the average age of the 2.7 million Americans who watch at least part of Rukeyser's show each week is 62. MPT wants to go after a younger audience.

This is the second time in recent weeks that age demographics have become a determining factor in a public affairs programming decision. Ted Koppel almost lost Nightline in ABC's attempt to lure younger viewers. Only David Letterman's decision to stay at CBS reprieved the program.

Mr. Rukeyser can be insufferably pompous and eccentric on occasion, but we are sorry to see him go. His program is TV's most thoughtful discussion of investment horizons, not just a collection of stock picks selected on the basis of short-term market gyrations. That's why all the cable imitators failed to threaten his ratings.

It's very unlikely that MPT's new fast-paced replacement show, produced in cooperation with Fortune magazine, will have anything like the life span of the Rukeyser program -- or the ratings.

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