Minus Rukeyser, it'll be `Wall Street Weak'

March 27, 2002|By Jay Hancock

DON'T CRY too hard for Lou at the Wall Street Wake.

Louis Rukeyser, whom People magazine called "the dismal science's only sex symbol," was sacked by Maryland Public Television on Sunday as host of one of TV's most intelligent and informative shows for 32 years. Even Johnny Carson didn't last that long.

MPT moved to demote Rukeyser, 69, to third fiddle after apparently deciding Wall Street Week needs Daisy Fuentes or the Kratts' Creatures guys to make it relevant.

Rukeyser balked and then blasted MPT on Friday's show, which ensured that it was his last. Instead of letting him stay on until June, when his contract expires, MPT dismissed Rukeyser and will try to use guest hosts between now and when its new, Lou-free money program makes its debut next fall.

Good luck to the station. Rukeyser's ensemble of experts, which included some of the brightest and most articulate financial minds on the East Coast, seems to be as finished with MPT as he is.

"I don't think there are any circumstances under which I would go back," says Frank Cappiello, a Lutherville money manager who was a panelist on the first Rukeyser show in 1970 as well as the last. "My allegiance is basically to Lou."

Brian Rogers, a T. Rowe Price mutual fund manager, was booked as a panelist for this week but told MPT Monday that he's out.

"If you were able to track down all the panelists, I suspect it would be almost unanimous" in sympathy for Rukeyser, Rogers says.

"Most of the panelists feel a great sense of loyalty to Lou. I'm a little hard-pressed to see how Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser without Louis Rukeyser is going to be a big hit on Friday nights."

Pity the MPT producer recruiting fill-ins for this week's show, which will be taped tomorrow instead of Friday because of the holiday. Appearing will be deemed an act of disloyalty to Rukeyser, whose status as one of the most powerful financial journalists seems little diminished.

Like an investment-banking partner bolting to a rival firm with his whole team in tow, Lou is likely to pop up on another network next fall with a show that looks a lot like the one formerly produced at the MPT studios in Owings Mills.

Heck, he could do it next week. He's got the production company, the Rolodex, the Elves, the smirk and the puns. (Once, after answering a viewer question about a company selling hair-replacement products, Rukeyser said, "If all your money seems to be hair today and gone tomorrow, we'll try to make it grow by giving you the bald facts on how to get your investments toupee.")

All he needs is an outlet, and there should be plenty that are interested. He's already talking to CNBC.

Even if the new Lou show fizzles, which is unlikely, Rukeyser wins.

In the Dark Ages of business journalism, he showed up with the unpromising idea that the media - TV, no less! - could cover economics and capital markets with smarts, class and appeal.

The work of Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo and today's other market pundits is a daily tribute to Wall Street Week. Rukeyser's prudent bullishness on stocks made truckloads of money for his viewers, and he never surrendered to TV's demands for the glib, the fatuous and the titillating.

If Lou is a sex symbol, it's because he made brains and put options sexy.

On what other show in the last three decades could you have seen all these people: Milton Friedman, John Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Kissinger, Salomon Brothers' Henry Kaufman, Fidelity's Peter Lynch, mutual fund deity John Templeton, Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy, Brazilian central bank governor Arminio Fraga and Argentinian economic minister Domingo Cavallo?

Not to mention regular panelist Marty Zweig, the doleful, soporific antidote to the shouters and promoters on CNBC's Squawk Box?

In his farewell broadside, Rukeyser noted that Wall Street Week has been a "major cash cow" for MPT and PBS. He could have mentioned that it has also been a major cash cow for Louis Ruykeyser, whose investment newsletters, speeches and other ventures earn him millions.

The newsletters, the most popular of their kind, probably take in more than $20 million a year. Public television, which continuously begs viewers and taxpayers for funds, should do a better job of getting pieces of these kinds of ventures.

But Rukeyser deserves riches and fame. Three decades ago he was an important pioneer. Today his show is an island of wit, decorum and knowledge in a sea of junk.

MPT loses more than he does, and so do Baltimore and Maryland.

Wall Street Week offered a national audience for local financial managers, and its exit is another blow to Baltimore's reputation as a regional money center. One hopes MPT's new offering will have some Baltimore flavor, but Rukeyser's next venture will almost certainly be taped in Manhattan, near his Connecticut home.

There is an urban myth among the Wall Street Week regulars that the Owings Mills Town Center mall was built by the Rouse Co. and occupied by upscale stores solely because of the town's fame as the show's home.

Saks Fifth Avenue has already bolted from Owings Mills. Lord & Taylor announced its exit last month.

Now Lou. Cue the blue light specials.

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