Financial Tv Pioneer Spurns Genre's Hard Sell

Marylander Launched The Sobering 'Wall Street Week'

July 21, 2009|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Jay.Hancock@baltsun.com

The woman who invented financial television doesn't live in Manhattan, doesn't own a fabulous stock portfolio and, truth to tell, never did make much money from the medium that turned Jim Cramer, Suze Orman and Louis Rukeyser into multimillionaires.

Anne T. Darlington lives in a nice townhouse in Lutherville. She is as decorous as CNBC's Cramer is obnoxious, as soft-spoken as personal-finance guru Orman is hectoring. This underappreciated pioneer thinks financial TV has let the country down in recent years.

She believes Americans forgot that money never comes without responsibility. Maybe if she were still educating the populace, unemployment wouldn't be 9.5 percent, the U.S. debt wouldn't be $12 trillion and the personal savings rate would be substantially more than zero.

"I think the people in my business have failed," she said in an interview at her home. "We have to show people why they got into the mess they got in. Why are they carrying an average of $8,000, $10,000 in credit card debt? Did they think the bill would never come due, that people wouldn't want to be paid? Did they think, really, they could get away with it, just because the government does?

"You've got to get inside people's heads and find out why they did what they did. Why did they buy a house they couldn't afford?"

The beginning

Forty years ago, Darlington was a single mom in her 30s and working at a brand-new enterprise called Maryland Public Television when somebody in the fundraising department, as she remembers, passed along a viewer's suggestion to produce a show about money.

"To inform the general audience about the workings of the stock market and its relationship to the economy and government," was the neatly typed mission statement from 1970 that Darlington pitched to station bosses.

Nobody had ever thought of such a thing. Hardly anyone encouraged her. Howard "Pete" Colhoun at T. Rowe Price was an exception, giving her numerous Wall Street contacts. She wooed Louis Rukeyser, then a correspondent with ABC, and persuaded the head of ABC News to let Rukeyser moonlight on her show.

The resulting program, Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser, was rough at first and, after Darlington left, became subject to the boosterism that helped inflate the 1990s Internet bubble.

But for three decades it accomplished the impossible by drawing millions to a highly intelligent program featuring graphs, accounting and economists. Darlington designed the show as it lasted until 2002, with Rukeyser's opening, newsy monologue, a panel discussion, viewer questions and a featured guest.

"The force behind the entire project was Anne," says Frederick Breitenfeld, who was MPT's first president. "She was on her own and there were no models. There was no financial informational stuff on the air anywhere."

The viewers were there. They just didn't know it. Americans were saving. Women were joining the workforce. Yet the stock market was still seen as occult art.

"I was in the same group," Darlington said. "I thought, if I can put together a program that demystifies Wall Street, cuts out all the jargon, talks about not just how to save your money but how to conserve it, how to invest it wisely, how to make choices, how to understand if you're being sold a bill of goods - if I can do that, I can get an audience."

She did. In some markets, Wall Street Week drew a bigger audience than commercial stations. Rukeyser left ABC to work full time for MPT and started making jillions from speeches and newsletters.

Articles in The New Yorker and The New York Times have mentioned Darlington once or twice over the years, but she doesn't get enough credit for launching the form that Rukeyser came to personify. Last month, MPT gave her an award named after Breitenfeld for "visionary leadership in public media."

No money, little fame

Money would have been better than fame, says Darlington, now in her 70s.

"I never made a penny out of Wall Street Week. It was Maryland Public Television's, and I got a state salary which was minuscule for the work I was doing. I would have liked to have gotten more money - but ... I'm not a fame person."

She was appalled when MPT tried to demote Rukeyser in 2002 and then fired him when he rebelled. "One of the most bone-headed things ever, ever done," she said. The replacement show fizzled. MPT declined to comment.

Darlington left MPT in 1989. Financial TV has traced a long arc since Wall Street Week appeared. Cable launched rival shows and veered away from Rukeyser's "invest for the long term" philosophy and into market timing, rapid trading and other financial porn. CNBC, launched in its present form in 1989, especially stoked the Internet bubble.

CNBC's Cramer, who appeared a few times on Wall Street Week when he was a hedge fund manager, "is a wild man, but he's not stupid," Darlington said. Orman is OK "if you can get past the teeth."

No show kept millions of people from buying homes they couldn't afford. We need a new series to show people how to dig out, "if they're smart and disciplined and careful," she said. "It would be aimed right smack at the baby boomer generation."

She worries that the Democrats are selling out the free market. She misses her "all-time, absolute hero," libertarian economist Milton Friedman, a frequent guest on Wall Street Week whom she served a dollar bill-shape cake in MPT's Owings Mills headquarters after he won the Nobel Prize for economics.

Financial TV became like stocks - hyped, overvalued and dangerous to your wallet. That happens even to the best investment ideas - especially the best. But for a long time, to watch Darlington's show was to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing, like buying the Dow Jones at 2,000.

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