New show mirrors old show for Rukeyser

TV/RadioColumn

Financial host moves to new CNBC home starting April 19

April 10, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Cut loose by Maryland Public Television, Louis Rukeyser will be appearing instead on cable financial news channel CNBC at 8:30 p.m. Fridays in a show that will compete directly with Wall Street Week - the PBS show he anchored for 32 years.

In an unusual deal, commercials will be placed solely at the top and close of the new half-hour show on CNBC, just where the underwriting spots highlighting corporate sponsors appeared on the MPT program.

That's meant to tailor the format for public television stations, which will be offered the opportunity to broadcast the show the weekend after it's aired twice on CNBC each Friday. "I insisted that we take care of my public television fans," Rukeyser said by telephone yesterday. "It is an unprecedented arrangement."

The program, called Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street, will be broadcast from the channel's headquarters in Fort Lee, N.J. "We tried to be creative about this," said Pamela Thomas-Graham, CNBC's president and CEO, in an interview. "Lou has a tremendous appeal, and we respect the fact that he has a very loyal audience."

Rukeyser, known for his mordant wit and his expansive knowledge, has previously appeared on CNBC. He will also periodically comment on significant breaking business news and the economy. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

"They are clearly the leader in financial cable television," Rukeyser said. "I have always admired their programs." CNBC, like sister station NBC, is owned by General Electric, and is one of the major success stories of cable television.

Rukeyser has been deeply dismissive of his former bosses at MPT, whom he said "ambushed" him by secretively putting together a partnership with Fortune magazine for a new version of Wall Street Week that would diminish his role. MPT officials fired him and several staffers last month after he talked about the rift on the air.

Both Rukeyser and Rich Dubroff, formerly the show's executive producer, said they were taken aback by the Fortune partnership. Until that point, MPT CEO and President Robert J. Shuman had not offered any concrete proposals for change, nor any sense that Rukeyser would cease being the show's host, the two ousted men said.

Yet correspondence obtained by The Sun related to the show suggests significant change was in the air as early as a year ago. PBS distributes Wall Street Week to more than 300 public stations throughout the country, and it draws in $6 million in annual revenues for the Maryland broadcaster. But its viewership skews older and its audience size has slipped slightly in recent years, while costs have risen.

Rukeyser, the 69-year-old founding anchor of the show, says those figures demonstrate its endurance, given the emergence of cable. But PBS President Pat Mitchell has pushed, with mixed success, to revamp many longtime staples.

Wall Street Week was no exception.

In an April 2001 letter to Shuman, Mitchell warned against assuming there would be a long-term future for the show. "While PBS desires to continue to make Wall Street Week available to the membership, I cannot promise you a Friday evening time slot for Wall Street Week," she wrote.

In May 2001, at a meeting at a downtown Baltimore hotel, the financial correspondent was told by MPT officials that they would like to reinvent the show, according to Lawrence Miller, a Washington lawyer who represents MPT and who was present for the conversation.

This winter, Shuman and John T. Potthast, MPT's senior vice president for content enterprises, say they spelled out the need to arrange for a media partner. Potthast said he also made a pitch for elevating some of his commentators to a weekly status, rather than rotating among a pool of 22 guests. "This proposal met with silence," Potthast said yesterday.

Instead, Rukeyser argued for greater marketing budgets for the show, and called for Shuman to defend the show more vigorously to PBS executives.

The new MPT program, to start in June, will feature Fortune editorial director Geoffrey Colvin, 49, as a host, and it will carry the magazine's name in its title. The program is intended to become more Web-savvy and more responsive to the current dynamics of the market, according to MPT officials, although they acknowledge they have not settled on a precise format.

In the past, Rukeyser has said he would be willing to tinker with his show's set or graphics if that would appease public television officials. Yesterday, he said he had heard few proposals for change.

"I never heard about Fortune," he said. Shuman "had talked about bringing in a media partner to provide content, in what would still be my program. Our reaction was, let's take a look, and see if it's constructive."

His new CNBC show will make its debut on April 19.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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