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Rukeyser gets the last laugh

Try as he might, Louis Rukeyser isn't able to keep the laughter from heading entirely up his well-tailored sleeve.

Public television's ill treatment of one of its few nonpuppet superstars _ treatment that had the feel of a debacle in the making last spring when Rukeyser was essentially elbowed out of the Wall Street Week show he founded _ has turned out to be, in fact, a debacle.

Wall Street Week With Fortune, the show that Maryland Public Television, with the consent of PBS, devised to replace Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser, looks more like Wall Street Week With Misfortune.

It has lost nearly a third of its viewers and, more to the point, all the literate, punning spark that Rukeyser brought to the dry world of investing.

Maryland Public Television, the host station for the show in both versions, has endured staff layoffs and salary cuts, in part because Rukeyser's underwriters left with him.

And the dapper 70-year-old dean of financial television, now ensconced in the commercial world at cable's CNBC, struggles to keep his satisfaction in check.

"Somebody said to me the other day, "The small group that wanted to get you out invented a new crime: suicide by ambush,' " he recounts with admiration for the well-turned phrase.

On one hand, Rukeyser will insist that he doesn't want to dwell on last year's very public muddle: Maryland Public Television brought in Fortune magazine over his head. Rukeyser went on the air to say that his show was, in essence, being hijacked. And the longtime partners in the Friday night venture split up faster than a family business after the founder dies.

"I said only one thing at the time: "I'm happy to let the market decide,' " Rukeyser says from his home in Connecticut, which is much closer to his new taping site, in New Jersey, than is Maryland. "I would now, a year later, add only one phrase at the end of that sentence: "which it now clearly has.' "

The Friday-night venture he hosts now, Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street, is doing well enough that CNBC just signed him on for another two years.

It has also quickly become the financial news provider's most popular show. In second place is the weekday morning market-watching show Morning Call. The one hosted by CNBC's "money honey," Maria Bartiromo, doesn't come close.

"The lesson is that you can be dumb, and you can be dishonorable, but when you put the two together, it's very bad policy," Rukeyser says.

Executives at Maryland Public Television say that they just wanted to make the more than three-decades-old show more contemporary and Rukeyser wouldn't play ball.

"I think we're really hitting our rhythm," says Larry Moscow, executive producer of the new Wall Street Week, which replaces Rukeyser with the pairing of Fortune staffer Geoff Colvin, who at least has a good voice, and verging-on-Stepford business journalist Karen Gibbs. "The show's coming together. The talent is feeling comfortable with the format."

In total viewers, the Fortune show is beating the CNBC one. But depending on how you tally the numbers, it's close, especially so when you consider that Fortune is the evolution of a long-established show available over the free airwaves in 97 percent of U.S. TV households and Rukeyser's Wall Street is a newcomer on a cable news network that reaches 76 percent.

For the seven-month period from last October through this April, WSW with Fortune was averaging about 1.22-million viewers, according to PBS, a number that includes some of the repeat airings of the show each week.

Over on CNBC, the new Rukeyser show grabs "well over a million viewers," says the network, citing Nielsen Media Research numbers for the total of the three Friday showings (749,000 viewers) plus the weekend repeats on some 175 PBS stations. (Rukeyser insisted that the cable show be made available to his old faithful.)

As for Rukeyser, "I'm better off financially," he says. "I believe in the free enterprise system, and I practice it."

His shortened commute to tape his new show means that "there's less wear and tear," and his lucrative side businesses, financial newsletters and cruises, are still going strong.

But he doesn't want to make too much of how it has played out. Really.

"It isn't that I have vindicated myself against massive odds," he says. "It's just that there were a lot of people from the start who thought (what Maryland Public Television did) was dumb."