ANNAPOLIS – Officials at Maryland Public Television never planned the abrupt dismissal of Louis Rukeyser, longtime host of the popular financial show, “Wall Street Week,” but the move has allowed them to begin retooling programming to appeal to a more diverse audience.
Now, with direction with PBS, MPT viewers could see further programming changes, though nothing as radical as what happened March 22.
That was the day MPT fired Rukeyser after he criticized, on the air, their decision to revamp the show by partnering with Fortune magazine. MPT had offered Rukeyser a senior commentary role, which the veteran host fervently refused.
The station faced a backlash from media, Rukeyser and his supporters after canning the host and revamping the show with Fortune, but MPT officials insist changes made to “Wall Street Week” were part of a plan to better serve the public by updating an antiquated format for today’s investors.
“The show is 32 years old,” said Jeffrey D. Hankin, MPT’s vice president of marketing and brand management. “The profile of today’s investor community is radically different. There are more people in the market now, a larger, more diverse group, and the show had not changed in 32 years.”
MPT officials want to debunk perceptions they were looking to oust Rukeyser as part of a mission to seek younger viewers, higher ratings and increased funding.
It is still public television, after all, and the station’s mission is not simply to attract younger viewers, Hankin said, but part of a larger vision promoted by PBS to reinvent itself to serve an increasingly diverse viewing public with quality programming pertinent to viewers’ lives and interests.
Though MPT President and CEO Robert J. Shuman was hired in 1997 primarily for his considerable fund-raising skills, PBS officials have said there is little credence to rumors MPT is shaking up its programming for fear that support for the station will wither with its aging audience.
“The core vision of public broadcasting has not changed — to maintain high quality standards and deliver worthwhile and engaging programs,” Hankin said.
Many proposed changes have come from the PBS hierarchy. Upon being named president and CEO in March 2000, Pat Mitchell mandated a “move away from the perception of PBS being nothing but British programming,” said Harry Forbes, a PBS spokesman.
Mitchell, 58, is the oldest president in PBS history and supports the networks’ older viewers and hosts, Forbes said. But PBS has taken action to reinvent itself under her, embracing market-driven research as it seeks to rework many of its prime-time staples.
That included “Wall Street Week,” produced by MPT, which was slipping in the ratings, losing audience members to cable financial shows like CNN’s “Moneyline with Lou Dobbs” and Fox News’s “Your World with Neil Cavuto.”
Rukeyser’s whimsical commentary appealed to his traditional viewers, but was somewhat arcane to newer investors, though the show was still the most- watched financial program on television, with 2.7 million viewers.
PBS officials recently met at their Alexandria, Va., headquarters to discuss revamping up to nine of their core series, including such staples as “ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theater” (recently moved to Mondays after 25 years on Sunday nights, and now including performances of American productions), “Nova” and “American Experience.”
“There’s a real feeling that a lot of shows have been around for a long time and have not evolved as they should have,” Forbes said.
Cable channels like A&E, Animal Planet, Home & Garden Television and The Learning Channel (a cable network Shuman co-founded) have dedicated themselves to programming once exclusively aired by PBS, further abrading public television’s distinguishing niche and making it harder to retain loyal viewers.
In an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, PBS picked up several new shows dumped by the networks.
The network swept up “American High,” a reality series chronicling the lives of Chicago-area high school students, after it was dumped by Fox, and turned it into an Emmy-winner. “American Family,” PBS’s first-ever prime-time drama series, was originally rejected by CBS after a pilot episode.
The move to revamp “Wall Street Week” by entering a partnership with Fortune magazine to produce a more spirited, faster-paced show generated some negative publicity for MPT when Rukeyser claimed the network “ambushed” him.
The scenario created a perception that MPT kicked Rukeyser to the curb in hopes of attracting a younger audience and more sponsors, invoking comparisons to ABC’s recent efforts to oust Ted Koppel and “Nightline” in favor of David Letterman.
But public television does not rely on advertising for revenue like the networks do, and MPT officials said they based their decision on serving a wider, more diverse audience rather than an attempt to lure younger viewers away from commercial programming.
“It had to do with meeting the needs of (newer) investors,” Hankin said.
Ratings weren’t the issue either.
“We’re not about ratings,” Forbes said. “(Our ratings) are chicken-feed compared to what the commercial guys get.”
Hankin said MPT officials were disappointed about Rukeyser’s bitter public reaction, but remain confident the new show will succeed in line with their mission. “We intend to move on,” he said.
Rukeyser was unavailable for comment Friday, preparing for the debut that night of his new CNBC show, “Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street,” which will air Fridays at 8:30 p.m., opposite his old program. The show will also be broadcast by many public television stations on Saturdays, although not by MPT, whose officials vowed Rukeyser would never again appear on their airwaves.
As for increasing funding, neither MPT nor PBS said it is a motive behind any further impending changes, but Forbes admitted it would be a welcome consequence. “More members and more viewers always helps with money.”