It was 8:29 on a Friday evening and the "performers," who only moments before were munching deli dinners as they animatedly discussed the TV show they had just finished taping, suddenly grew silent. Their attention was riveted to a big television screen in the corner where, after a few seconds of introductory graphics done to a bouncy, ticker-tape tempo theme, they joined millions of other viewers in watching themselves perform on what has become one of public televisio's most popular shows - "Wall
On Wv. , the performers ar securities analysts, economists, traders, executives and bureaucrats who at the end of each week, when they might be enjoying their second martini, instead spend a half-hour discussing the often arcane world of finance. And out there in videoland, a hardcore audience of about 8 million each week routinely take a 30-minute break from their weekends to hear discussions about such heady topics as fiscal budgets, stagflation, taxes and stock market highs and lows.
It has been that way practically form the show's first appearance on a Friday night in November 1970. By audience demand, the show appears 52 weeks a year. Recently when the 260-odd stations that make up the Public Broadcasting System voted on what programs they wanted to buy for the coming year, Wv. came in second behind Washington Week in Review.
Certainly a major reason for Wv. 's popularity is its host, Louis Rukeyser, a former newspaperman with a modishly Edwardian hair style and pleasant ironic view of the world of high finance. Rukeyser, who clearly enjoys his celebrity status, like to tell how he was mobbed by autograph seekers at the West Palm Beach airport: "It was as if the Fonz had just arrived but, in my case, the average age of the fans was about 77." Rukeyser is 45.
Rukeyser and others seem a little sensitive about the age of the show's audience, which apparently has not been scientifically measured but which is probably peopled with pensioners trying to learn ways to stretch their limited incomes. John Davis, the show's producer, says he figures the median age at about 50 or 55. "Obviously there are more elderly watchers who are just before or after retirement age," Davis says. "There are also a lot of professionals who view us, not to learn but simply to watch their collegues."
There are 15 regular panelists on the show, some of whom appear more often than others. Each panelist has a following, according to Rukeyser, and there is an occasional mash note among the 1,000 or so letters that flow into the station each week.
The panelists are paid only $150 a show, including expenses. And Owings Mills, located some 5 miles northwest of the Baltimore city limits, is neither a communications nor a financial center. But panelists and guests are only too happy to make the trip to this remote TV station, located on a hilltop at the end of a long country road.
A regular panelist can parlay his appearance into profits for himself and his firm although participants' firms are not identified on the program. B. Carter Randall, for example, who heads the trust division of a Miami bank, advertises himself in financial publications. And though he does not mention Wv. by name, he doesn't have to because his regular appearances make him a familiar face and name to viewers.
Other popular regulars include Frank A. Cappiello Jr., who is president of Monumental Capital & Management Co. in Baltimore, a subsidiary of the Monumental Corp.; Gail Dudack, chief technical analyst for Pershing & Co. in New York; and Julia Montgomery Walsh, chairman of Julia M. Walsh & Sons in Washington.
Each week there is a special guest on the program, who may be the Secretary of the Treasury, a spicialist in art investment, or a monetary expert. Rukeyser notes that brokerages houses are standing in line to get their top analysts into one of the guest slots. That's not surprising, because it allows a firm to tell 8 million people about the stocks it is pushing - and certainly some of those listeners will go out on Monday and put their money into their stock.
"I bend over backwards to insert disclaimers," says Rukeyser. Indeed, it is probably a measure of the show's credibility that Stanley Sporkin, head of the enforcement division of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has been a special guest on the show.
Rukeyser won't say how much he is paid for doing the program, but one knowledgeable source claims he made $300,000 last year from the program and the numerous spinoffs. He writes a economics column that appears three times a week in 100 newspapers. And he says he delivered 100 speeches during about 8 months on the banquet circuit last year. He also has written a best-selling book, "How to Make Money In Wall Street."
A 1954 graduate of Princeton University, Rukeyser spent II years with the Baltimore Sunpapers, first as a political reporter and then as a foreign correspondent in Asia and London. He got into TV broadcasting with ABC News in London and Paris, then he returned to New York where, in his words, he "created economic commentary on TV."
It was while he was in London that Rukeyser came to the attention of Anne Darlington, who created Wv. and who recently was named executive producer of programming at the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting. Darlington was on a Fulbright fellowship studying how the British handle TV programming. She saw Rukeyser on a BBC broadcast, and in 1969 when she was casting for a host for Wv. , he was her first choice.
"The test of a truly bright or brilliant person is an ability to put difficult subjects on a level that everyone can understand," she says. "Lou can do that, and so can a guest like Milton Friedman (the economist). People in the audience say, 'Gee, this isn't as difficult as I thought,' or, 'Gee, I'm smarter than I thought.' That's the trick to what we do - we make people realize they are smarter than they thought they were."
Actually, the concept of Wv. was suggested at a cocktail party in 1969, Darlington recalls. A Baltimore stock-brocker asked a director of the then newly formed Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting why there wasn't a show that taught people how to handle their money. The director turned to Darlington, who recalls that, at first, "It didn't sound too exciting to me."
But she soon came on a winning formula for presenting the usually dreary, often complex subject of economics to the audience. "Just talking stocks and bonds is not too interesting," she says. "But you tell the average persons what to do with the little money he has squirreled away, and people listen. The idea, as far as I am concerned, is to tell the average person how money works."
Darlington adds that a large percentage of the audience is made up of women, who she says are attracted to the program because it does not talk down to them. "The women can listen and learn." she says. "But if they talk to brokers or to a man, they are talked down to. On Wv. they are talked to on the same level."
Both Rukeyser and Darlington are critical of the commercial networks for not doing more with economic coverage. "I thought once we proved it could be done, the networks would pick up on the idea," she says. "But programming decisions are made by executives earning $200,000 a year and they don't need us to tell what to do with their money."
Rukeyser notes that each year there are about a half dozen attempts to do an business-economic show. One recently abortive try was made by Business Week magazine. Rukeyser says that recently a commercial TV producer quizzed him about why his program succeeded while others failed.
"I told him there are three secrets," says Rukeyser. "First you have to speak English and not hide behind academic and business jargon. Second, since you are speaking English, you'd better understand what you are saying. Third, you'd better do it with a little flair because nobody wants to sit before a TV set after a hard week and be educated."
Adds Rukeyser with more than a little self-satisfaction: "I told him. 'Those are the only secrets. Now go out and do it for eight years.'"
With Wv. a continuing success, Darlington has another ecominics TV show in the works. This one, she says, will "translate the world of business through people who work. The way I think you can make a business series work is by concertrating on the people."
She describes the level of economic education in this country as "appalling," and she hopes her new series, which still is searching for funding, will help change than in much the way she thinks Wv. has removed some of the mystique from finance. "Back in 1970 when we went on the air," she says, "there were 32 million individual investors," she says. "Now there are only about 27 million. It just may be that we've convinced 5 million people that they are better of out of the market."