Wall Street Week producers eye the future, Rukeyser sees a 'bad joke'
Adapted from Current, March 25, 2002
By Karen Everhart and Steve Behrens
Plans to reinvent Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser, a Friday night staple on PBS and the most-watched financial news program on television, no longer include the series' host.
His contract was to run through June, but the producing station, Maryland Public Television (MPT), fired Rukeyser ahead of schedule. The silver-haired host turned the March 22 program against his bosses, urging fans to ask their local stations to carry a new weekly program that he plans to host.
"We were surprised and saddened that he chose to use the show as a medium to air contract disputes and promote his new show," said MPT President Rob Shuman.
MPT had already agreed with Fortune Multimedia, an arm of AOL Time Warner, to eject Rukeyser from the impressive leather chair and remove his name from the series title, responding to longstanding complaints from PBS stations that the 32-year-old financial series needs to broaden its appeal. Geoffrey Colvin, Fortune editorial director, will co-host the show with a financial journalist yet to be hired.
Rukeyser ridiculed the changes as a "silly, bad joke" in the Baltimore Sun March 21. The newspaper broke the story the same day PBS Board members reviewed plans to re-examine PBS's signature series and retool station breaks. The board's finance committee is proposing that stations pay 5 percent more for programming next fiscal year, aiding primetime reinvention and digital content projects.
Coby Atlas, program co-chief at PBS, told Current that public TV is hoping for a younger audience, "but young is 40, it's not 20." Rukeyser is 69.
Bad press generated by the Wall Street Week changes foreshadows what could be a contentious process for PBS, producers and stations, as they look to revise the content of programs based on audience research.
Unsympathetic news accounts last week put public TV execs in the same camp as unenlightened ABC suits dissatisfied with Nightline's audience demographics. "The executives of MPT make ABC look like the State Department," Lou Dobbs, CNN financial news anchor, told the Sun. "It's an extremely ungrateful and graceless act."
"Most people who have heard that MPT is going to try to do Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser without Louis Rukeyser think it must be somebody's idea of a bad April Fool's joke," Rukeyser said in a statement. The host says he agreed to work with MPT to overhaul the show until MPT "decided unilaterally not to proceed with me as host of the show I created, wrote and maintained for 32 years."
The network instead offered him a role as senior commentator, and "I decided that I didn't want to have anything further to do with them," said Rukeyser, adding that he's considering offers from other TV outlets.
MPT will enlist a guest anchor to take the series in its current format through the summer, said John Potthast, MPT's senior v.p. of content enterprises. The retitled and revamped Wall Street Week with Fortune will launch in the fall. Jeff Gralnick, a consultant and former news executive for ABC, NBC and CNN Financial News, is leading the production redesign.
In recent focus groups with viewers of Wall Street Week, MPT learned that its core audience "would stick with the program at least through the initial few months," Potthast said. MPT hopes to attract younger viewers to the show by revamping the format, picking up the pace, and launching a dynamic website.
The changes respond to complaints about the show including those voiced in 1997, when station programmers critiqued Wall Street Week and other public affairs series. They concluded that the weekly business show was "tired" and didn't do enough to engage audiences. Some commented that Rukeyser's personality was a turn-off for new viewers.
Producers made some changes to respond to the complaints, but they were incremental and not enough to satisfy critics, according to Potthast. "There was some dissatisfaction with the status quo," and both PBS and station programmers continued to press for more dramatic changes.
In the Wall Street Journal, MPT President Rob Shuman described the overhaul as "a business decision that we have to make if we were going to be able to continue the franchise for public television. Without it, I don't think that there would be a show next fall."
Washington Week, produced by WETA in Washington, responded aggressively to similar station complaints about that show, which is paired with Wall Street Week in the Friday night schedule. In 1999, producers recruited Gwen Ifill as host and managing editor and updated the show's look and pace. Although the changes initially stoked up a storm of bad press, the effort has paid off, in Potthast's estimation. "I think that viewers and PBS and its member stations are certainly quite pleased with Washington Week today. I hope that Wall Street Week with Fortune will be in the same place" in a few years.
Fortune will bring journalistic assets to Wall Street Week but not the checkbook of its giant parent, AOL Time Warner. "With our high level of editorial breadth, our newsgathering capabilities and the analysis we bring to our coverage, this is a good fit," said Terry McDevitt, v.p. of communications at Fortune. Wall Street Week's editorial approach "meshes well with how we approach our coverage."
A prominent on-air role for Colvin, who delivers daily business commentaries via the CBS Radio Network and has appeared widely on television, was "certainly important" to Fortune in pursuing the partnership. Other Fortune journalists will appear on the program on a nonexclusive basis.
Modesto won't call the tune
With overhauls of Wall Street Week and Mystery! already under way, PBS now aims to reinvent other major primetime series.
Votes last week by the PBS Board's finance committee moved these efforts further along by adding $5.5 million to the proposed fiscal 2003 budget that will soon be sent to stations. The sum, to be raised through a 5 percent increase of stations' program assessments, includes $3 million for programming for DTV and $2.5 million for renovation of PBS's primetime. In addition to the primetime reinvention efforts, PBS plans an overhaul of station breaks to keep viewers from surfing away and development of monthly pledge specials for broadcast outside of pledge drives.
The nine series that PBS has identified for research are Masterpiece Theatre, Frontline, American Experience, Washington Week, Nova, Nature, American Masters, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Now with Bill Moyers, according to spokesman Harry Forbes. He noted that PBS's plans are still tentative.
How will PBS reinvent its icon series? John Wilson, PBS co-chief programmer, said producers might change series openings and hosts, for example, but he can't predict what research will say. PBS is one of the most "under-researched" networks, he said.
Those decisions will be based on qualitative and quantitative research by ASI Entertainment, with results due by summer, Wilson said in an interview. ASI is a major movie and program testing firm based in Glendale, Calif. Researchers will ask not only fans and station members but also infrequent viewers for their opinions of the shows and weigh their answers appropriately. The first round will put the programs through auditorium tests in two cities. Then ASI will seek more detailed qualitative reactions from focus groups. Finally, it will seek to confirm findings with quantitative surveys.
Program producers will be invited to watch focus groups behind the two-way mirrors, Wilson said. "Producers must understand that we will not allow a focus group in Modesto to dictate their show."
PBS will also try to re-engineer the breaks between programs, Wilson said. When public TV stations air the long string of credits, promos and other break material they lose more viewers than any other network, he said. To diminish the impression of interruption and keep viewers, PBS will look at ways to promote the next show while extending the content of the ending program and taking care of underwriting credits and cassette offers.
Wilson expects PBS will offer an optional "turnkey" feed of break material for participating stations, which would include promos for the next common-carriage program.
The new pledge specials called TOOP for "Target of Opportunity for Pledge" would be performance specials, historical docs and other shows that would feel as if they belong in the usual primetime schedule, Wilson said. Pledge breaks would be designed so that stations could insert their phone numbers without the expense of activating their studios for traditional pledge breaks.
These added pledge moments would break down the appearance that pledging is "quarantined" in pledge periods, Wilson said.
PBS will assess stations' plans for digital services and develop a content strategy for future programming needs. Program streams, packaged multicast services, high definition programming and video on demand are among the potential digital services that PBS will consider and begin investing in, Wilson said. "We want to make sure we have a strategy that will position [stations] well."
PBS execs originally requested only the $3 million for digital content projects, Wilson said, because they weren't sure whether the board would be in the mood for a greater hike in program fees. That amount would equal a 2.7 percent raise meaning that the fees would rise at about the rate of inflation.
But the Program Policy Committee and then the Finance, Budget and Audit Committee last week endorsed funding for the additional $2.5 million for National Program Service projects. The PBS Board is scheduled to adopt next year's budget June 23, based on reaction to the proposed budget.
To Current's home page Earlier news: Station programmers say WSW and other PBS programs aren't engaging enough, 1997. Outside links: Wall Street Week, the host's independent Rukeyser.com website, Rukeyser ball caps and polo shirts for sale, Rukeyser Investment Cruises, Jeri Charles speaker agency (listing Rukeyser as a $20,000 speaker), and ASI Entertainment (the program testing firm that PBS plans to engage)
Web page posted March 25, 2002
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