Host stings Maryland PTV, plots his return
Adapted from Current, April 8, 2002
By Karen Everhart
"Mr. Rukeyser will not go quietly into this good night," said Larry King at the end of his CNN talk show on April 5. King devoted his entire show to Maryland Public Television's firing of Louis Rukeyser and his plans to come back with a competing Friday-night money show.
Rukeyser's biting remarks on his farewell show March 22 had already inflamed his fans and prompted more complaints than many public TV stations had seen in years.
[He announced April 9 that he would host a new program on the CNBC cable network, opposite his old Friday-night show. The program will air again on CNBC at 11:30 that night and will be available to public TV stations for further plays after midnight Friday. WLIW in New York City will syndicate it to other public TV stations.]
The 32-year host of Wall Street Journal with Louis Rukeyser said during the Larry King interview that he'd been ambushed, stabbed in the back and had a ton of bricks dumped on him by MPT, producer of the long-running PBS series. MPT signed a production agreement with Fortune magazine that demoted him from program host. Rather than accept a secondary role, Rukeyser opted to go out slinging.
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth to have an ungrateful child — in this case an ungrateful producer," Rukeyser said on Larry King Live last Thursday, quoting King Lear. Rukeyser said he is considering legal action against MPT for breach of contract and violating his First Amendment rights.
The dispute over Rukeyser's contract, which was to expire June 30, became news March 21, after MPT offered Rukeyser a diminished role as senior commentator on an updated show, to be titled Wall Street Week with Fortune. Rukeyser devoted his opening commentary March 22 to the dispute and promised to launch a new program.
"[D]on't worry folks. I've always said that I wouldn't retire until I was old enough to be an anchor on 60 Minutes. And I've got a long way still to go!" the 69-year-old host told viewers.
He encouraged viewers to call their local PBS stations and ask them to air his new program. MPT later dismissed Rukeyser and Executive Producer Rich Dubroff. Interim guest hosts have been appointed to take the show through June, but regular panelists agreed to boycott MPT. Late last week, one of the program's four underwriters, Occidental Petroleum, withdrew.
Rukeyser objected that station executives and PBS never gave him concrete feedback about improvements to the show.
Several factors influenced the station to push ahead with changes in PBS's icon financial show, according to Jeff Hankin, MPT spokesman. The audience had declined 25 percent over the past four years, and it dropped off the top 10 list of most valued programs by public TV contributors in a member survey. The show's coveted Friday night airtime was at risk, Hankin said, because stations had begun to move it to slots that were less attractive to underwriters.
MPT told Rukeyser about the program's problems, including the "precarious position of the Friday night slot," Hankin said. "We have found him resistant to significant change in the show. Minor adjustments he seemed open to, but not a format change."
News coverage of the conflict highlighted PBS's desire for a younger audience, with Rukeyser implying during the King interview that public TV wanted an MTV version of his show. But PBS President Pat Mitchell said in a Current interview she's more interested in ethnic and economic diversity than relative youth.
Hankin said the average age of Wall Street Week viewers was 65, a decade beyond that of PBS's primetime viewers.
MPT and PBS execs said that the investment community is now larger and more diverse than the traditional investors who formed the core of Rukeyser's audience. Baby boomers are hitting their 50s and looking at how to invest their discretionary income for a comfortable retirement. Retirees, meanwhile, are already drawing on their accounts and want to minimize their investment risks. "In refreshing and rethinking the show, we really need to address both of those groups," said John Potthast, senior v.p. of content enterprises.
MPT now plans to launch its new show in June. The basic format will remain the same, but each segment will be "brightened and refreshed," said Potthast. New features, such as regular segments devoted to stock-picking or 401(k) retirement plans, may also join the mix.
Commentaries from various contributors will run at the end of the broadcast, rather than at the top, according to Jeff Gralnick, a former network news executive who is consulting with MPT. The editorial focus will shift to previewing next week's markets, rather than looking back at the week that just closed. "Anybody who comes to the broadcast on Friday night knows what happened in the market last week," he explained. "They need to know what's coming up."
Designers are also working on a new set and graphics and possibly a new logo. "There is no aspect of this that we are not looking at," said Potthast.
"This is not a drive for glitz," said Gralnick. "We're not trying to make Wall Street Week be anything it isn't. We're trying to make Wall Street Week better."
"PBS is rightly trying to escape an audience whose age goes from 55 to death," commented Jim Russell, who oversees public radio's Marketplace. "Obviously, they recognize they've got to find a connection to today's audience."
Wall Street Week is "so clearly of the past — they can't leave it alone."
Fans beg to differ, however. Some stations reported high volumes of calls and e-mails complaining about the ouster of Rukeyser. By last week, WNET in New York had received 2,200 calls and e-mails, according to spokeswoman Stella Giammasi. "That's a really high response rate," more than four times the outcry WNET heard when it aired an edited version of the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life.
KAET in Tucson received 800 calls, e-mails and letters. "The thing that has impressed me the most is that, for the most part, these people are very polite," said Joe Campbell, program director. "Normally in this situation the response is more emotional."
Roughly 1,000 responses came into WHYY in Philadelphia. "It was a substantial amount, but not unprecedented," said Art Ellis, spokesman. WHYY heard from more viewers two years ago when it shuffled primetime programs to try out a new PBS schedule.
"There is no question that it was multiplied by what happened on the air," said Dan Soles, program director at WTTW in Chicago.
Rukeyser derided Maryland PTV as "ungrateful" after turning down a smaller role in the show he hosted 32 years.
To Current's home page Earlier news: Rukeyser rejects smaller role in show, asks fans to complain to public TV. Outside link: Rukeyser's press release announcing new show.
Web page posted April 10, 2002
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