MPT banks on refocus of `WSW'

TV/RADIO COLUMN

November 05, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Out in Owings Mills, the people charged with fashioning Maryland Public Television's signature program once again into a resounding success have devised a new formula. From now on, Wall Street Week with Fortune, paradoxically, will de-emphasize Wall Street.

"This show needs to solidify its place in the market as doing something different - doing something special," says Larry Moscow, the program's executive producer. "It's not about a bunch of people on the set sitting around and picking stocks, that's for sure."

He points to the morning papers, with headlines about indictments and mismanagement involving the people who run mutual funds, investment houses, major corporations and stock exchanges. The program needs to offer viewers a broader grounding in the truths driving the economy rather than reports on the short-term trends in specific stocks, he argues. While some investment advice will remain, the show will also tap the reporting expertise of Fortune, MPT's partner.

On Oct. 17, Karen Gibbs, one of Wall Street Week's two hosts, traveled to Astoria, N.Y., for a story on the influence of immigrants on the economy. On Friday, the program is scheduled to include a piece by Gibbs on the workings of the New York Stock Exchange, currently under fire from state and federal officials. Moscow promises on-location stories will become a standard part of the show.

"There should be an investor revolt going on right now," Moscow says. "We owe our audience more perspective - more context - and a bigger picture."

This credo represents a marked shift from Wall Street Week in its previous incarnations. In the 32 years that Louis Rukeyser was host, his idiosyncratic musings on the marketplace and his experts' stock picks were the two reasons to watch. Now, Rukeyser can be found on CNBC on Friday nights in a program that closely mimics his old broadcast on PBS. Nightly Business Report, produced out of the dominant PBS station in Miami, closely tracks the daily vagaries of the market.

Moscow's point, which makes a certain sense, rests on the notion that people interested in controlling their personal finances require greater understanding of the economics of the society around them. And Wall Street Week, despite its name, is perfectly positioned to do that, he says. Yet there is the risk, always hovering nearby, of alienating a core audience.

So far, Moscow's message hasn't really percolated up to a second key audience: the PBS stations that choose when - and if - to run his program. (PBS does not function like a commercial network in that it has less ability to command stations to run specific shows at a certain time.)

The Sun interviewed officials at nine representative PBS stations across the country about the performance of Wall Street Week. Of those nine, five are running it in the same Friday evening time slot that it held when Rukeyser was in the anchor's chair. Three have moved the show to later (and what could be considered less desirable) time spots. North Carolina's statewide public broadcasting system dropped the program altogether in June. None had any real sense that MPT was taking a new tack with the show.

At KCET in Los Angeles, the show has lost about one-third of its audience compared with its levels when Rukeyser was the anchor, though those losses have been stemmed. At Maine PBS, the percentage of people watching television in that market who are tuned to Wall Street Week has been halved. Similar, if less extreme losses have been felt in several other markets - down from what, under Rukeyser, had already slipped to levels that stirred concern at PBS headquarters. (MPT ousted Rukeyser in March 2002 after reaching a partnership with Fortune magazine. The move was intended to draw a slightly more youthful audience to the show than did Rukeyser, then 69.)

"It's not one of our better performing programs," says Nimmi Singh, marketing and national promotions associate at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

"I assume they're working hard at it, but it's not what Wall Street Week with [Louis] Rukeyser was," says Bernie Roscetti, television program manager for Maine PBS, a statewide system.

Many of the stations that broadcast Wall Street Week also run Rukeyser's new CNBC program, which also appears on more than 170 PBS stations each weekend. Through CNBC and the PBS stations, Rukeyser attracts a combined audience of roughly 950,000 viewers weekly. Wall Street Week draws about 1.3 million viewers weekly.

Judy Hohmann, director of marketing and communications for Twin Cities Public Television in Minnesota, says the show experienced a modest but noticeable drop in viewers after the switch to the partnership with Fortune magazine. But in the past few weeks, she says, the station has noticed a slight increase in the size of Wall Street Week's audience. She attributes the rise to "lightening up the set, the less formal format."

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