Guest Commentary: ‘Wall $treet’s’ bad Fortune

Apr 1, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Virtually all television journalists have one thing in common: They are employees. Hardly an owner-capitalist among them.
But after three decades, Louis Rukeyser, 69, had to believe that along with Jim Lehrer and Robin McNeil he was an elite exception.
He was, after all, the chief commentator and host of the most-watched financial program on television or cable, “Wall $treet Week With Louis Rukeyser.”
The program was co-produced by his own production company, Rukeyser Enterprises.
It had loyal sponsors (underwriters, in PBS language). It had devoutly loyal viewers-viewers who had made money, thanks to watching Louis’ show. It had an equally devoted circle of financial superstars who valued any time they got on Louis’ program. And it made money for the PBS presenting station, Maryland Public Television, and every public station that sold adjacent underwriting.
What else could Louis ask for?
He could ask for, but never get, ownership of the program and its distribution.
He could hope, but never get, to deal with business people as his partners, as opposed to government bureaucrats (the employees of Maryland Public Television, who, ultimately, work for the Maryland state government).
Louis is a capitalist and a fervent supporter of the free enterprise system. It must have driven him nuts to see government bureaucrats determining the future course of his professional crown jewel.
And these bureaucrats weren’t the swiftest group around. Over the years they had been unable to capitalize on Louis’ financial news reputation by launching a successful daily prime-time business show. That honor fell to their competitors at WPBT-Miami Public Television-for the “Nightly Business Report.”
I suspect in the end the government bureaucrats had to ask themselves: What happens if Louis drops dead (the only way they probably figured he would ever leave the show).
They had to think that with Louis suddenly gone, they might lose their meal ticket-the precious and profitable 8:30 p.m. Friday time slot, to a public television competitor like WPBT.
Now these Maryland bureaucrats might have sat down with Louis and tried to work out a deal to keep the franchise going and planned for a variety of contingencies.
But that would have required face-to-face deal-making with a formidable negotiator-Louis.
My guess is it was too much for them.
So they dealt behind his back. Louis had a contract coming up for renewal. The only way to deal with Louis, they apparently decided, was not to deal with him. To replace him, they have selected a magazine-AOL Time Warner’s Fortune-as the star, with Fortune`s Geoffrey Colvin as co-host. You might ask, what does AOL Time Warner’s CNN know about Fortune as a star TV vehicle that Maryland doesn’t know? There is no Fortune CNN show co-starring Geoffrey Colvin; never has been and probably never will be.
It smells like a surefire disaster in the making, and therein lies an opportunity.
I don’t see Louis going to cable-the audience is too small.
But I can see Louis teaming with a hungry public television station, and together their co-producing “Wall $treet Week” under a different name. They’ll get the big financial superpowers to underwrite it, the same A-list guest list, and syndicate it at 8:30 p.m. Fridays to the same public stations that carry Louis now (emulating “Nightly Business Report,” which is not a PBS show and has always been syndicated independently).
I’m rooting for Louis. He still won’t own the distribution system, but he can still show the bureaucrats some capitalist entrepreneurial spirit.
Dick Hubert was executive producer of “Louis Rukeyser’s Business Journal,” a Viacom-distributed weekly commercial TV financial news show. He is now an Internet consultant and a streaming media producer as CEO of Videoware Corp.