Worlds away from Rukeyser’s Wall Street

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Wall Street Week with Fortune, the PBS series that reinvented itself last year after a messy split with original host Louis Rukeyser, is setting itself further apart from its progenitor.

The program sharpened its reporting this fall on the scandal-plagued financial markets while expanding its coverage to economic trends beyond Wall Street.

Acknowledging the steady drumbeat of news about improper trading practices and corporate malfeasance, Executive Producer Larry Moscow wants WSW to reflect investors’ ire over scams that deflated their portfolios and retirement accounts. Investors, he observed, are now saying, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

“We want to put PBS at the vanguard of reporting on that rebellion by providing independent information about what’s going on,” Moscow said. “These are different times and we have to do things beyond sitting in the studio and talking about it.”

The shift in tenor was unmistakable in co-host Geoffrey Colvin’s introduction to the Nov. 7 edition. “By now, we thought we had seen most of the ways that individual investors get scammed by Wall Street, but little did we know. This week, an avalanche of evidence suggests that many of the people you trust most with your money in fact put their interests ahead of yours in direct violation of their sworn duties.”

The intro rolled into a field report by co-host Karen Gibbs that walked viewers through a trade on the New York Stock Exchange. She described the roles of three middlemen earning commissions on the trade and explained the improper practice of “trading ahead” of customer orders to earn extra profits on a sale.

The Oct. 17 edition offered a feature on immigrant-owned businesses in the Astoria section of New York City. Gibbs and a camera crew went by subway into the bustling immigrant community, moving the PBS franchise a world away from Rukeyser’s old program and its new incarnation, Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street.

Rukeyser’s show, which airs at 8:30 p.m. Friday on CNBC and over the weekend on many public TV stations, is essentially unchanged from his long-running PBS series. The host delivers his confident, witty commentaries and talks stocks and market outlook with his panel of well-informed guests. It’s a clubby atmosphere and an engaging conversation for veteran investors and those who don’t have to worry about postponing retirement because of 401(k) losses.

“Rukeyser speaks to the richest and most sophisticated audience in television, that’s why he’s such a perfect fit for CNBC,” said David Friend, CNBC senior v.p. of business journalism. “He is the dean of business journalism and pioneered this type of business programming.”

CNBC’s audience is mainly financial professionals, noted Moscow, who once worked at the cable net himself. “Our core audience is individuals saving for retirement and their kids’ college tuition, and figuring out how to invest, buy or trade up in a new house.”

Moscow said that changes to WSW aren’t driven by comparisons to Rukeyser’s show. He’s aiming to produce an “engaging, interesting, insightful program that’s ahead of the curve” and gives viewers financial insights they won’t find on other programs.

WSW’s competition, he added, is “whatever’s on ESPN or any other business channel or network television—or the special of the week at the bistro around the corner . . . and the newspaper you didn’t read on Friday morning.”

Compared to the old charmer

But Rukeyser is a particularly close competitor. Both shows seek carriage on public TV and viewers who want weekend financial news. More than a year after the blowup over Rukeseyer’s move to CNBC, both have audiences around 1 million.

Maryland PTV, which co-produces the series with Fortune magazine, reports that WSW drew an average cumulative audience of 1.3 million weekly viewers from its July 2002 launch through June. The Nielsen Television Index ratings measured viewing of Friday night PBS telecasts, said Larry Unger, executive v.p. The ratings showed a 50 percent increase in viewers aged 50-64, a positive response from the producers’ new target audience of baby boomers.

Rukeyser’s show, meanwhile, counts a somewhat smaller combined audience of more than 900,000 on cable and public TV. The CNBC cablecast averages 418,000 viewers a week at 8:30 p.m. Friday and 182,000 for an 11:30 p.m. repeat, according to the cable net. The public TV airing adds 350,000 viewers a week, CNBC researchers estimated.

PubTV Online gave a similar range for the public TV airing; it said average weekly impressions for Rukeyser on public TV ranged from 187,000 to 346,000 during the four sweeps periods from November 2002 to July 2003. (The impressions measurement isn’t exactly the same as a rating; a person watching a show twice in a single week would be counted twice, says Lisa Schibley, PubTV Online analyst.) The sweeps data cover many more stations than do Nielsen overnight ratings.

In the public TV arena, WSW draws roughly three times as many impressions as the Rukeyser show. During the same four sweeps periods, average weekly impressions for WSW ranged from 723,000 to 1.01 million.

Wider carriage that comes with its PBS slot gives WSW an edge. In October, it aired on 320 stations, 12 fewer than a year before, according to an analysis by PubTV Online. The Rukeyser program was broadcast on 179 outlets, four more than in October 2002.

Sounds from the field

Veteran public TV programmers, who pushed PBS to update WSW and other Friday-night shows in the late ‘90s, offered mixed reactions to the two Wall Street series. Many acknowledged that they hadn’t watched either recently.

North Carolina’s public TV network UNC-TV dropped WSW from its schedule last year to make room for a new local series. It now airs Rukeyser on weekends. Audience response to PBS’s new WSW was disappointing, said Diane Lucas, program director, and Rukeyser isn’t performing as well as he did in his PBS series. She plans to reconsider WSW.

WNED in Buffalo, N.Y., also dropped WSW in favor of the Rukeyser program. Ron Santora, broadcast director, said Fortune magazine’s editorial role in the program turned him off of the new show, and viewers expressed their loyalties to Rukeyser.

KERA in Dallas decided last year to throw its support to WSW, said Bill Young, p.d. The series gets a Friday debut on second channel KDTN and a Sunday repeat on KERA. On the Record, a local public affairs series, took WSW’s Friday timeslot on KERA.

“From the beginning, I really liked the idea of revamping the show and going to a younger audience, and I really wanted to give that a chance,” Young explained. When KERA completes the sale of KDTN in January, Young plans to continue airing WSW on Sundays, where it draws double the audience of the Friday broadcast.

“The Fortune show is working just fine,” said Kathryn Larsen, p.d. of Rhode Island PBS. She didn’t pick up the Rukeyser series because WGBH is broadcasting it in nearby Boston and “our viewers weren’t clamoring for it,” she said.

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