Rukeyser Pioneered TV Stock Talk, and Cramer Added the Laugh Track
Watching Jim Cramer on CNBC, ripping the head off a toy bear, then raking his audience with machine-gun sound effects, left me longing for the days when Louis Rukeyser was considered "too showbiz" to be talking about stocks on television.
Rukeyser, who died last week at 73, invented business broadcasting, a field into which I, too, have strayed.
"Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser" went on the air in 1970. At its peak, it had 6 million regular viewers and was the most-watched show on public television, easily the best thing ever to come out of Maryland Public Television.
Killing it in the spring of 2002 may have been the dumbest decision ever made at MPT headquarters in Owings Mills because for years Rukeyser was a cash cow, supporting other programming.
Once considered too cute because he cracked puns and too radical because he actually expressed opinions about stocks on TV, Rukeyser created a generation of market-moving multimedia mavens.
He opened the door to Lou Dobbs, whose protectionist preaching on CNN almost justifies calling Fox News "fair and balanced." He was the intellectual godfather of Maria Bartiromo of CNBC, who last week rattled the stock market by reporting Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke's party chat about Wall Street misreading some of his remarks.
Even Jim Cramer credits Rukeyser with turning him on to investing.
"I didn't know the difference between stocks and bonds until I watched him," Cramer said in a phone call last week. "He was unbelievable. He got a lot of people started on successful strategies."
But that was a different era. While the erudite Rukeyser drew people in by emphasizing the "pun" in pundit, Cramer works a sound-effects board, literally tooting his own horn. Laugh tracks, wails of pain and gunfire punctuate his stock picks.
Cramer said the big difference between him and Rukeyser is that "he never bit the heads off bears or threw chairs."
Washington area companies such as Blackboard Inc., Under Armour Inc. and ManTech International Corp. have experienced the sudden, if transitory, bump in share prices that follows on-the-air praise from Cramer.
As former "Wall Street Week" guest Jim Grant recalled in the New York Times last week, columnist Russell Baker once described himself as a typical "Wall Street Week" viewer, sitting in a Louis Quinze armchair sipping "a calming infusion of brandy."