Louis Rukeyser has been sacked.
PBS, the your-tax-dollars-at-work network, and Maryland Public Television, which produces "Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser," have decided to gut the show written and hosted by the popular economic commentator for three decades.
It is, after all, only the most watched financial news program on television, pulling in about seven times as many viewers as the most watched business news show on cable.
Starting this fall, MPT will instead produce "Wall Street Week With Fortune" -- as in Fortune magazine, the AOL Time Warner publication that, according to one source familiar with the situation, was "looking for a show."
Apparently it couldn't find one over at AOL Time Warner's CNN networks. Fortune used to have a show on CNN; the publication was a partner on one night of the newsmagazine "NewsStand." It so wowed viewers it was canceled.
You ought to know that MPT takes issue with saying that Rukeyser has been sacked.
"I wouldn't describe it that way," said Jeff Hankin, MPT vice president of marketing and branding, when we spoke with him yesterday.
He'd say instead that Rukeyser "has been offered a different role" on the show.
"A senior commentator position."
Rukeyser turned it down.
Rukeyser, whose contract is up in June, told The TV Column he was unaware of MPT's plot until Wednesday.
"Maryland Public Television, as my partner, and I decided we had to make changes, and we were going to work together on what those changes should be, when they decided unilaterally not to proceed with me as the host of the show I created, wrote and maintained for 32 years," he said.
"They then tried to get me to remain with the program in a senior commentator capacity, but I decided I didn't want to have anything further to do with them."
MPT's Hankin said the radical alteration of the show is "the logical progression."
"We have heard from stations in the system and from viewers and members; it became clear that the show must be reinvented at this juncture in time," he said.
That's because "it's in a strong position" and "it needs to remain strong."
We wanted Hankin to define "strong," so we asked how many people watch the program.
"In quantity?" he asked. "I don't know."
(Wish I had a dollar for every time someone from public television told me they did not know how many people watch a particular show.)
We thought for just one second about referring Hankin to MPT's own Web site, where it says Rukeyser's "smash-hit TV program draws millions more viewers every week than any other financial program in history."
Instead, we asked, how do you know the show is "strong"?
"Strong in terms of brand," he said, recovering nicely.
"We want to see that brand continue in a very healthy fashion and we want to see it grow.
"We want to include its existing audience," he added quickly. "We're not talking about replacing its current audience."
MPT must have reams of research telling it that the show's audience is so stupid that MPT can sack the host, overhaul the set and gut the format, but so long as it continues to call the show "Wall Street Week," the audience won't notice. Maybe MPT should call it "Wall Street Week Without Louis Rukeyser" just to make extra sure they fool those dumb Rukeyser fans.
Instead of Rukeyser, they'll see Fortune editorial director Geoffrey Colvin. A frequent co-anchor of CNBC's "Squawk Box," Colvin is the new co-anchor of "Wall Street Week With Fortune." Notice how MPT didn't offer Rukeyser the other anchor chair?
MPT says the pacing of the new show "is expected to be brisk."
Don't they know for sure?
"We're looking for more information, a wider variety of information, a wider variety of information sources," Hankin says.
Why -- they're looking for a CNBC show!
Fortune journalists will be among those appearing as panelists or commentators, we learned.
This show was starting to quack like a Fortune infomercial. We asked Hankin whether MPT or Fortune was paying the production costs.
"I'm going to say primarily us," he said after a pause, adding, "I don't go into a lot of discussions of production finances."
By this point we were getting just the teensiest bit weary of this conversation. So we cut to the chase and asked if Hankin would tell us, once and for all, why MPT and PBS were dumping Rukeyser and deconstructing the show.
"There is a large baby boomer segment that's very much interested in investing these days," he began cautiously.
We suppressed the urge to scream and let him continue:
"The current audience of the show tends to be over 60. The average age of the Fortune reader is 49."
Whether you call those things that run before and after PBS shows ads, like normal people, or enhanced corporate sponsorship announcements or whatever it is PBS calls them these days, it appears those corporations are as interested in reaching younger viewers on PBS as they are on the other broadcast networks.
The average age of Rukeyser, by the way, is 69. Colvin is in his late forties, according to news reports.
Rukeyser says that since word got out that he'd been booted, his phone has been "ringing off the hook with alternative offers." He says he hopes to have something to announce soon.
NBC yesterday afternoon was insisting that just because its latest sitcom starring a "Seinfeld" alum was being pulled from the schedule after April 2 doesn't mean it's canceled the show.
The network had ordered 15 episodes of "Watching Ellie" for this season. That's the most episodes diva Julia Louis-Dreyfus had said she would do in a season. NBC initially planned to run only about half the order and bank the remainder for next season so it could amass a full season's worth of 22 episodes.
However, the fact that "Ellie" has lost about 40 percent of the 16.7 million viewers who tuned in to its Feb. 26 debut has led to speculation that this show is a goner.