One for the money: Rukeyser’s Friday evening pavane

Commentary by David Stewart

One evening in London, in 1966, Anne Darlington, a Johns Hopkins graduate on a Fulbright Fellowship, was surprised to see Louis Rukeyser, then chief of ABC’s London bureau, on a BBC interview program. She remembered him as a writer for her hometown newspapers, the Baltimore Evening Sun and the Sun.

The host and guest experts wrap up the week in finance.

Four years later, in January 1970, Darlington was preparing a TV series on sports fishing for the fledgling Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting when someone at a Baltimore cocktail party suggested that a series on economics and financial management might be more appropriate. One of the Center’s executives scribbled the idea on a piece of paper and gave it to Darlington, adding, “Do you think you can do anything with this?” She thought she could.

“By summer,” she says, “I had it plotted, knew how many programs, the format, the budget. How to make people watch it was the difficult part. It needed a host who knew more about economics than TV.” Then she remembered the BBC program — and Rukeyser. By this time he had moved to New York as ABC’s chief economics correspondent, the first network newsman to hold that assignment.

“Once I got Louis in my head,” Darlington continues, “I couldn’t get him out. I interviewed some others but they wouldn’t do. Louis knew both economics and TV. I finally got up my nerve to call him. And, God bless us and save us, he answered his own phone! I was tongue-tied.”

She asked for his advice, for names of those he thought could host a financial program. He said he’d give it some thought. The following week she was more forthright, saying only he could make it fly. He was intrigued but skeptical, especially about how it would affect his network connection.

Louisms

“Short interest: He who sells what isn’t his’n, has to buy back or go to prison.”

“Doctors bury their mistakes, brokers just take a second commission.”

“The best thing the small investor has going for him is the stupidity of the large investors.”

“If we don’t get the economics straight, nothing else matters.”

“I said to Elmer Lower, the president of ABC,” Rukeyser remembers, “I can get my Friday commentary taped on Thursday. I go down and do this little PBS show for 30 weeks . . . You won’t lose anything, and you might get some brownie points with the FCC. They agreed to it. Then, of course, the tail began wagging the dog.” He left ABC News in 1973 as his career broadened. The 30-week commitment to W$W became, by 1998, a nearly 30-year engagement.

“I had the panelists, the set had been designed, Louis was the last piece of the puzzle,” says Darlington. The first Wall $treet Week program, subtitled “Who’s the Average Investor?” with special guest Stan West, research director of the New York Stock Exchange, was broadcast on Nov. 20, 1970. It also featured a Baltimore banker and an insurance executive, B. Carter Randall and Frank Cappiello, who both became regular panelists. Rukeyser’s style was evident from the beginning as he pleasantly but firmly pressed a reluctant Mr. West to tell the audience whether brokers give a brush-off to the little guy who wants to sell less than 100 shares.

The program was greeted three days later by Jack Gould’s New York Times review under the headline, “Little TV Station in Maryland Looks at Wall Street.” “Who would have thought,” mused Gould, “that the financial press would have some rivalry from Channel 67 atop a Maryland hill?” Who, indeed? In its 28th year, Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser still reports that it is watched by more people than read the Wall Street Journal and by more than watch any other TV business program.

In its first year the series treated basic questions, such as: “What Makes a Successful Investor?” “What to Expect from Common Stock Investing?” “How to Make Money in Mutual Funds,” and “What Women Should Know about Managing Their Money.”

“In the second year,” Darlington says, “we began branching out.” While the programs’ content may have been widening, their form was taking a shape that would remain remarkably unchanged through the years. Writing in Investment Vision eight years ago, Richard Levine describes the programs “as ritualized as Kabuki drama, as strictly choreographed as ‘Swan Lake.'” As part of the ritual Levine included the 10 technical analysts who Rukeyser named “the Elves” with their up, down and neutral predictions, as well as Rukeyser’s own “puns, his patented wink and grin.”

It seems altogether probable that Rukeyser’s Friday evening pavane within the setting that Darlington hoped would “resemble a boardroom cum penthouse” is more than a small part of the program’s hold upon its loyal audience, calming the viewers through constancy and continuity, soothing as a familiar fairytale, confirming the steadfastness of the financial community. Its buy-and-hold philosophy of program presentation reassures nervous investors as it informs and entertains them. W$W benefits from the allure of an ever-changing investment market combined with a predictable program format—a Mister Rukeyser’s Neighborhood for grown-ups.

On the Friday after “Black Monday”—Oct. 19, 1987, when the market lost 508 points—Rukeyser’s first words were, “It’s just your money, not your life.” He abandoned his regular format and talked throughout with three guests. As if to prove that ritual would not be broken, the producers subsequently folded the altered format into the series, and it has become a “regular change” approximately every three months. Another ritualized break is the annual “New Year’s party” (gentlemen in black tie), during which guests check their predictions against the market’s actual performance.

The program’s Elves have their own weekly prediction ritual as well, which become fair game for comment by financial journalists who compete with Rukeyser. In July [1998], Mutual Funds magazine observed that stock analysts were expecting a bearish period in the market because the “Elves” featured by Rukeyser were bullish seven-to-one. Indeed, stock prices tumbled late the next month. The three previous occasions when the Elves showed a “plus-six” split, in March 1991, January 1992 and May 1996, also preceded “protracted periods of market drift or outright correction,” according to the magazine. W$W publicist Caroline Lewis replies that the Elves’ predictions are more accurate than those of Mutual Fund‘s Norman Fosback.

One of the most unusual fixtures of W$W‘s formal structure since the start is the receptionist (“Ms. Smythe” as she is known to the production crew), who escorts Rukeyser to a place among his panelists and appears to mingle, if somewhat stiffly, among the guests at the program’s close.

“At the start,” Darlington explains, “the programs were live, and we needed someone who could walk on and off to straighten out any on-camera technical emergency. Louis’s mike was on a long cord that could become entangled in the furniture. A man would have been too distracting. The audience would say, ‘What is he doing?’ Natalie Seltz [who served in the role] was a TV director and knew technical matters. She could walk around the set unobtrusively.” Seltz was the first of several Ms. Smythes, and has now returned to the role.

Another reason for “Ms. Smythe’s” presence was (and one assumes still is) to act as a “minder” for special guests who, Darlington says, “might have great reputations but were deathly afraid of looking foolish on TV. So ‘Miss Smythe’ met them, talked to them, calmed them down.”

During W$W‘s first year there was an abundance of panelists and guests. Darlington remembers spending two or three days in New York interviewing them: “I like to know exactly what I’m getting,” she says, “face to face.” In the second year the panelists were cut back to seven or eight, and she began to put Carter Randall and Frank Cappiello on together each week. The panel since has grown to 26, who take turns on-air, including analysts who follow special sectors of the market.

The formula worked almost too well, it seems, for her small staff—Darlington, a project assistant, a part-time secretary and part-time researcher. They received more than 2,000 pieces of mail in the first year and 66,000 pieces in year three.

Those innocent days of early public TV

Soon after the program began to appear locally and on 11 stations of the Eastern Educational Television Network—including New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Boston—the search for its continuing financial support began. The budget for the 30 original half-hour programs was $108,602, of which the newly established CPB contributed $85,000. Rukeyser himself earned $10,200, or $300 a program, according to one Maryland PTV budget from this period. (He remembers his fee as $200 per program.)

Today, the program—now produced jointly by MPT and Rukeyser Television Inc.—appears on more than 300 stations, behind only a few series such as Sesame Street and This Old House, and its budget has grown to $2.8 million for 52 episodes. Rukeyser today does not discuss his salary, but an experienced budget-watcher at PBS guesses that he earns about $300,000 a year.

Within a few months of the program’s premiere, national public broadcasting officials were anticipating its popularity—and worrying about FCC problems with its underwriting. CPB’s head of programming, John Witherspoon, asked consultant Thad Holt to help raise money for the show, but warned that it “might run afoul of [public TV’s] underwriting policy in the course of a very worthwhile effort.”

The field then was very sensitive about accepting financial support from sources that might influence, or appear to influence, program content. Public broadcasting executives and funding specialists joined in an extended ethical struggle that tried the patience of nearly everyone involved.

Here is Jeremy Wintersteen, a CPB fundraising advisor, writing an Aug. 20, 1971 memo for his own records: “First blush confidence for finding corporate underwriting for [W$W] wanes somewhat when one considers the arm-length situation and the understandably skittish financial public relation’s stance of publicly held corporations. Stockbrokerage firms are obviously out.”

Perhaps at first. But the FCC’s and public broadcasters’ comfort with corporate underwriting grew considerably over the years. In 1998, W$W was supported by grants from Prudential Securities Inc., A.G. Edwards and Sons Inc. and Oppenheimer Funds Inc.

“You learn to get unblocked”

Following W$W‘s appearance on PBS, the New York Times modified its reception from surprise to cautious optimism, John O’ Connor concluding that the program “doesn’t provide the complete solution to the problem of presenting economics on television. But it comes close and is determined to get closer.” In 1980 the Times ran a long Sunday feature on W$W, ending: “Almost every year there are efforts to produce imitations, yet almost none are successful.”

Anne Darlington left W$W in the late ’70s to oversee the production of all MPT programs. She was succeeded by her assistant, John Davis, who now hosts and produces Maryland PTV’s Motorweek. Rich Dubroff, now the executive producer, has been producing the series since 1981.

Throughout W$W‘s history Louis Rukeyser has never stepped out of its spotlight. “Louis saw its potential immediately,” says Darlington, now an independent media and political consultant. “He never once said it wouldn’t work, as many people did.” In addition to his weekly presence on more than 1,300 programs with nearly 1,000 guests, Rukeyser has greatly influenced the program’s format and style.

“We had a brilliant but erratic first director,” recalls Rukeyser. “He had the idea to open each show differently—camera placement, the way the set looked, and so on. You had some arty shots in which I couldn’t find the camera and the audience didn’t know what the hell was happening. I finally said to him, ‘Look, Johnny Carson comes out every night, five nights a week, stands in the same spot, in front of the same curtain, and people never say, what a boring shot. They say Johnny was, or wasn’t, funny tonight.’ ”

He attributes the program’s shape and content to viewer response. And to this, Rukeyser says, he is “extremely attentive,” reading all the comments, favorable and critical, each week. “The program’s structure,” he says, “is designed to be fail-safe, the guest occupying only about a third of the total time. I’ve heard every conceivable comment about the show over 28 years—except ‘You had the wrong guest tonight.’ Guest-driven programs are far more common in television. This one, intentionally, has balance.

“In the beginning there was no concept that the opening commentary would be such an important part of the program. [But] it was perfectly clear from the early days that what was catching the audience was that opening.” Rukeyser, who says he thinks of himself first and foremost as a writer, composes his 4-5 minute program introductions about two hours before the program opens. “I write every syllable,” he says. “When people want to be kind, they say, ‘Please tell your writers not to give you that material.'” Kevin Anderson of USA Today once asked Rukeyser whether he ever experienced writer’s block in those last moments before the show. His response: “I was chief rewrite man for the Baltimore Evening Sun when it had nine editions a day. You learn to get unblocked.” Like many successful TV hosts, Rukeyser claims never to think of his audience of millions. As he explained to New York Times writer Neil Reisner in 1980, “I am talking to one person, whom I regard as intelligent, with a good sense of humor but not all that technically knowledgeable.”

The program’s panelists are given specific audience questions in advance. “Otherwise,” says Rukeyser, “they might not know and give the wrong answers. Then where would we be?” The special guest segment, admired by financial professionals and laymen alike, has included Alan Greenspan, Ross Perot, Paul Volcker, John Kenneth Galbraith, Malcolm Forbes and Paul Samuelson. One of Rukeyser’s chief regrets is that he has not (yet) hosted a sitting President.

Other guests are eager to come, however. “When you’re in financial markets, getting on this show is what everyone dreams of,” Paine Webber executive Andrew Shore recently told Fortune magazine.

Second generation on the finance beat

Louis Rukeyser was born on Jan. 30, 1933, the second of four sons of Merryle Rukeyser who had become financial editor of the New York Tribune at 23 and wrote a column for International News Service for three decades. His older brother, “Bud” (Merryle, Jr.), now in retirement, was an executive vice president and top spokesman at NBC. William was managing editor of Money magazine, then Fortune. The fourth brother, Robert, was an IBM executive before becoming senior vice president for Fortune Brands (“The only one in the family with a legitimate job,” says Rukeyser).

Merryle Rukeyser Sr. appeared on W$W on several occasions, first when he was 87 and in the year he died at nearly 92. Rukeyser says he remembers two pieces of parental advice: get into a business where you can exploit the labors of others, and one where you can regularly take capital gains. He later told his father he realized with mortification that he never took the advice, but consoled himself that his father never did either.

“All I wanted to be when I grew up,” recalled Rukeyser recently, “was a newspaperman—now, of course, a sexist title. I worked for [the New Rochelle Standard Star] as a school’s correspondent when I was 11. I was paid as a sports reporter when I was 16, and I’ve been a professional journalist for half a century.”

He graduated from New Rochelle High School, where Rick Breitenfeld, later head of MPT when W$W began, was a class ahead of him. Rukeyser remembers Breitenfeld acting extremely deferential in their first days at MPT—until Breitenfeld learned that brother “Bud” was the Rukeyser a year ahead of him, not Louis as he had mistakenly thought. (Breitenfeld has recently retired as president of WHYY in Philadelphia.)

At Princeton he enrolled in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and its Public Aspects of Business program, was president of the Press Club (although he took no courses in journalism), covered University news for several metropolitan newspapers, and graduated in 1954, determined not to follow his father into economic journalism. He started as a $55-a-week reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun and became the chief political correspondent (at 24), head of its London bureau, and its Asian correspondent in India, winning two Overseas Press Club prizes. In that period he also enlisted in the U.S. Army and served two years in West Germany, working for the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes. In 1965 he joined ABC News, first as its Paris correspondent, then head of its London bureau and later, economics commentator.

“Wherever I went in the world,” says Rukeyser, “it was perfectly obvious to anybody with an IQ over 62 that the worst covered subject in journalism is economics. The typical journalist not only knew no economics but was proud rather than apologetic about it. In my newspaper and ABC days I found myself the only one doing those [economics] stories. On the one side you have the Washington people who have no concept of what’s going on, and on the other the financial junkies who aren’t quite sure who Newt Gingrich is. I’ve always thought that the area that needed coverage was the largely unchartered frontier where politics and economics overlap.”

During his much-traveled life Rukeyser has acquired a wide variety of cultural experiences, including a more than passing acquaintance with good food and wine. “When I die,” he says, “just scatter my ashes over La Domaine Romanie Conti”—one of the smallest and most prestigious vineyards in France. Early in life he determined to eat in each of the Michelin three-star restaurants in France before he was 30—a promise he kept.

A man once described by People magazine as “the dismal science’s only sex symbol,” Rukeyser for some years has appeared on published best-dressed lists and once did a walk-on in a feature film, Big Business, during which Bette Milder knocks him to the pavement and steals his taxi. (He subsequently told an interviewer that the cameo appearance was “worth a little more in lecture fees, but nothing as a human being.”)

Married to a former British journalist, Alexandra Gill, he is the father of three grown daughters and lives on four acres in Greenwich, Conn. (“back-country Greenwich,” he insists, “with well-water and septic tanks”).

Gambling has been a serious hobby—”a relaxation,” as he puts it. “I love it. I’ve gambled all over the world,” he enjoys saying, “from Monte Carlo to Monaco to Estoril.” He’s no high roller, however, and he professes not to confuse gambling with investing. “I confess that I enjoy it less than I once did, because these days it’s difficult for me to be at a blackjack table for more than 20 minutes before a half dozen people have said—as if it were the funniest line of the century— ‘Ah, you find this a better bet than Wall Street, do ya?’ ”

Years ago, his brother Bill, then managing editor of Money magazine, urged him to review six books. He refused, until he learned they all concerned gambling. “Once you have read the literature,” he says now, “there’s nothing to discuss at a blackjack table. If you just play sensibly, you can improve your chances of escaping with your life.”

Lecturing and conducting large “investment conferences” has consumed much of Rukeyser’s time. For years he gave as many as 80 talks (always the same topic, “What’s Ahead for the Economy?”) between September and June. He is one of America’s highest paid public speakers. For 17 years, beginning in 1976, he wrote a column on economics that appeared in 300 newspapers (for the first five years, three times a week).

In 1992 he switched to newsletters: first Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street and two years later, Louis Rukeyser’s Mutual Funds. He revels in the newsletters’ combined 400,000 circulation (“the runaway success of the decade”). Between the columns, the newsletters, lectures and his W$W commitment, he has managed to publish three books: What’s Ahead for the Economy? (Simon and Schuster), How to Make Money on Wall Street (Doubleday) and most recently, Louis Rukeyser’s Book of Lists—The Best, the Worst and the Funniest from the World of Business, Finance and Politics (Henry Holt).

“I can’t do more than 30 lectures now without cloning,” an expression he has used to describe his heavy schedule for many years. “Unfortunately, raising the fee doesn’t seem to work,” he adds. Not a man given to self-deprecation or deferential demeanor—except to make a joke, his remarks about his life and prodigious professional accomplishments are often amusing and obliquely self-admiring. In conversation Rukeyser is affable, confident and businesslike, not unlike his TV persona. The W$W press kit bristles with descriptions of the program’s host. Although many appear to have been lifted from a high school yearbook, they are drawn largely from press accounts: “warm,” “caring,” “broadcasting dynamo,” “best loved,” “most trusted” and so forth. The latest description forwarded by his publicists was bestowed recently by the Museum of American Financial History: “Hero of Wall Street.”

Rukeyser’s image is carefully guarded by a publicist and assistants he describes as “a little jittery.” One wary staffer, instructing me to send a letter requesting an interview, solemnly advised that I was not to neglect spelling the program’s title with a dollar sign for the “S.”

Rukeyser seems altogether at ease with his busy and financially comfortable life. “We believe in treating the acquisitive instinct with neither scorn nor reverence,” he wrote in 1974. He might, as he subsequently made clear in a conversation, have become considerably wealthier than he is today. “I could have been rich beyond the dreams of anyone short of Bill Gates,” he said recently, “if I had taken even 10 percent of the commercial offers I’ve received.” He tells the story of an agent for a “reputable American corporation” who offered him “a million dollars a year going in,” and more, to become a corporate spokesman, and he could continue all his other professional activities. “[I said] I’m very flattered, their offer is very generous, but I think they want to buy what they would instantly cost me.” Commenting on such offers Rukeyser says, “I think there’s a difference between journalists and pitchmen . . . and cheerleaders.”

More than a few people have expressed surprise that Rukeyser has not taken his broadcasting operation from Maryland PTV’s suburban Baltimore site to a larger public TV station or a commercial network. He says he has refused many offers from commercial networks through the years. The way Rukeyser tells it, these temptations were predicted by Rick Breitenfeld soon after the program’s early success. Breitenfeld told his new star that Rukeyser would “probably take the program to New York now that it’s a hit.”

“I told him,” says Rukeyser, “if you’ll look at my career you’ll see that disloyalty is not one of my worst faults.” It also seems plausible that his outspoken comments might find a less hospitable home in a commercial setting.

Swimming in a crowded stream

Though he didn’t join a commercial network, Rukeyser continues to earn the largest TV rating in business reporting. For the 1997-98 season, the program had an average rating of 1.7 percent and a weekly cume of 1.898 million households, according to PBS Research.

(Public TV also has the business-news show with the second highest rating—the nearly 20-year-old Nightly Business Report, with an average rating of 1.0 percent last fall, according to NBR. Its weekly cume of 3.23 million unduplicated households is even larger than W$W‘s because the show appears five times a week.)

Wall $treet Week‘s ratings nevertheless are lower than often reported (Fortune last month said it had a weekly audience of 4.35 million individuals, and the Christian Science Monitor in July gave a figure of 4.7 million households—more than twice what PBS reports), and the numbers have declined as competition has grown. Its average audience is down from 2.05 million households in 1991-92 to 1.898 million last season, according to PBS.

W$W finds itself swimming in a crowded stream of business information, with more than 40 business programs appearing on broadcast and cable channels, according to a recent count by the Monitor, and online investment data scrolling constantly across the computer screens of many business executives.

I once watched W$W faithfully, but with so many other information sources wheedling for attention, I’ve cut back my own viewing of the show. And most of a small sampling of acquaintances—brokers, investment advisors, economic columnists—said that they watched the program infrequently because it didn’t provide information they did not already possess.

“When I began Wall $treet Week,” says its host, “people thought I was nuts. They said the subject is just too dull or complicated. The average American is intensely interested in money, if you can explain it to him clearly and without putting him to sleep. People are more aware that maybe they’re not going to be Bill Gates, but they have to build a little financial security for themselves.”

In a 1978 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Rukeyser ruefully remarked, “It used to be when I was asked what made the show go, I’d say it was because we were first in a field of one.”

Now, offering a calm and pun-filled assessment of the business world every Friday evening, he may find consolation in the fact that he is first in a much larger field, one he has done much to create.

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