More people watch "Wall Street Week," public television's effort to make the stock market and economics understandable to everyone, than "Meet the Press," NBC's granddaddy of public affairs programming.
According to PBS and NBC officials, who wish to remain anonymous, quarterly statistics covering last October through January show that an average of 4,123,400 households tuned in Wall Street Week during a given week, while 3,267,600 watched at least part of Meet the Press.
Not bad for a noncommercial program, which, when it was born on Nov. 20, 1970, couldn't even convince all 30 stations of the Easter Educational Network to carry it. Today, public television's most popular weekly program is aired by 256 public television stations throughout the United Stations.
The brainchild of Anne Truax Darlington, who now is director of program planning at the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting, Wall Street Week was designed, basically, as an intelligible primer on the arcane world of War Street. "I envisioned an informative, understandable and timely program about a subject that has significance to everyone -- money," Darlington says. "I wanted the show to deal in a practical way with any major activity or condition that affects the U.S. economy, and your and my pocketbook."
As the saying goes, the show has succeeded beyond anybody's fondest dreams. Why? Because it has done what it promised -- turned an abstruse, and potentially dull, subject into a digestible and lively one. But, above all, it has become a hit because of its host Louis Rukeyser. Just as it was virtually impossible to envision the evening news without Walter Cronkite, one cannot imagine WSW without Rukeyser.
Completely grey, this 48-year-old New York City native who grew up in New Rochelle and graduated from Princeton in 1954 combines knowledge of money and economics with charm that would make Rex Harrison take note. Begining each Friday night program with an up-to-the-minute summary of the week's Wall Street and national economic peformance, Rukeyser, with a crooked boyish grin and vocabulary void of jargon, puts everybody at ease.
His opening monologue, summarizing the week's activities, is laced with corny references to dominant events of the week. For example, two days before Easter, he unabashedly announced that, "Indomitably hopping down the bunny trail was the U.S. economy." The week before, when the space shuttle was grabbing headlines, he referred to "uncertain orbits." The night before the Kentucky Derby, Rukeyser observed: "Clearly, in most parts of the U.S. economy, there's life in the old nag yet."
Rukeyser insists that everybody speak in simple English. When panelists or guests deviate, he makes them repeat what they've said. "Obviously, it has worked," volunteers Rukeyser. " When we first announced plans for the show, skeptics couldn't think of a worse name and format. Who's going to watch, they asked, two shareholders and a few widows?We've always had much more success than the smart alecks predicted."
Rukeyser carefully avoids tampering with success. Each program conforms to a set routine. His opening summary of the economy, which is delivered on the arm of a chair in the set's living room, is followed by a didactic monologue on a current subject that is made clearer with graphics.Then, still talking, the host meanders to a nearby table to join the three panelists.
About 10 minutes into the show, Rukeyser poses a question, gleaned from viewer mail, to each panelist. And everyone then saunters back to the living room, where Rukeyser introduces the guest. Questions and answers ensue, with panelists denied the chance to rebut. Following this, as everyone stands, chatting informally, Rukesyer ends the show by announcing next week's guest.
Rukeyser and his guests, with their informal approach and easy banter, give the appearance that everything is spontaneous. It is, to the extent that questions and answers are not rehearsed. But there is no deviation from the basic, predetermined routine.
Predictablity also is watchword for Louis Rukeyser as he gets ready for each show. Despite his whirlwind weekly schedule, which includes speaking engagements throughout the country, he arrives at Baltimore-Washington International Airport early Friday afternoon and drives a rented Cadillac to suburban Owing Mills, home of the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting, where the show is produced. In 10 1/2 years, he involuntarily has missed only two shows: once due to illness, another when La Guardia was fogged in.
Alexandria and Louis Rukesyer run Rukeyser Enterprises from their Greenwich, Conn. home. In addition to his weekly WSW appearance, Rukeyser's three-times-a-week financial column is syndicated in 250 newspapers. And they also book the extremely lucrative speaking engagements which the show has generated. Rukeyser has cut back to 75 to 80 speeches a year, each paying $10,000.
Rukeyser's salary for doing WSW is a closely guarded secret, but it definitely is in six figures. His reasons for continuing the show from Owings Mills are not secret. It originated there, and everyone is compatible. The non-union production crew make the total cost relatively low. Annually, its budget is $747,000, with Martin-Marietta underwritting $230,000 of the total cost. And, perhaps most importantly, as Rukeyser candidly admist, "None of the commercial networks, which have dangled offers, would ever let me on at 8:30 Friday night. I'd be on Sunday afternoon."
While America sees Wall Street Week on Friday at 8:30 p.m., it is taped an hour and a quarter in advance. That is, unless unforeseen production problems force it to go live.
The show's three panelists are drawn from a rotating pool of 17. Each is paid $175 in expenses, and none is identified by his firm name. One panelist is based in Washington, another in Philadelphia, and a third flies from Florida. The rest are evenly divided between New York and Baltimore.
"It's amazing," concludes Julia Montgomery Walsh, who heads her own Washington firm, "not only Lou is recognized. Recently, at the Beverly Wilshire pool, I felt like Hedy Lamarr, so many people came up to me."
While there is some dispute concerning how many people those 4 million households really represent, Rukeyser and company claim 10 million. Ricki Green, producer of PBS' other weekly favorite, Washington Week in Review, with a similar rating, conservatively estimates 7 million.
One fact is not disputed. Eight fewer stations carry WSW than Green's highly acclaimed program. However, since it is completely underwritten by Ford Motor Co., WWR costs each station nothing. On the other hand, WSW cost each station nothing. On the other hand, WSW costs range annually from almost $31,000 for Channel 13 in New York to $1,120 for KAWE in Bemidji, Minn.