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PBS Cautiously Exercises Options on 'Wall Street'

June 26, 2002|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — PBS finally unveils the revamped "Wall Street Week" this Friday, introducing the new anchors and look that have been in the works since founding host Louis Rukeyser decamped for CNBC in April, after a much-publicized dispute over what was to be his diminished role led to his firing.

The program, which airs in Southern California at 8:30 p.m. on KCET-TV, comes with a new partner, Fortune magazine. The hosts stepping into the 69-year-old Rukeyser's role are Karen Gibbs, 50, most recently a business correspondent and substitute anchor for Fox News Channel; and Geoff Colvin, 48, editorial director for Fortune, who also has a daily report on CBS Radio. Before Fox, Gibbs was a CNBC anchor, and she also worked as a vice president and senior futures strategist at Dean Witter Reynolds.

The familiar guest and panel of experts will be back, but the set and graphics will be new, and the theme music has been updated. The series continues to be produced by Maryland Public Television, now in association with Fortune, with the title "Wall Street Week With Fortune."

PBS said it has corporate underwriters lined up for the program but won't announce who they are until later this week. Some sponsors from the old show followed Rukeyser to CNBC, where he launched a competing program, "Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street," on April 19.

Audience savvy has changed markedly since the show was conceived and launched with Rukeyser as host 32 years ago, Gibbs said. Back then, "Nobody knew what the Dow was, what the Federal Reserve interest rate was, and more people owned homes than stocks," she noted. Today's audience, by contrast, is actively managing retirement accounts.

Still, it was a fine line deciding what to keep and what to change. The show "was ready for some renovation, or revitalization," Colvin said. "On the other hand, we don't want to shock or upset the viewers that this program has had for some time. So we have to make changes, but we have to make them carefully."

Many viewers have already been upset, however, voicing their displeasure to PBS stations for seeming to push Rukeyser out. Some people pulled donations. In addition, Rukeyser's new CNBC program, which also includes his previous rotating panelists, airs at the same time as "Wall Street Week," and enough viewers have followed him since the show was introduced to make it CNBC's highest-rated program during the second quarter.

That said, his average 384,000 viewers on CNBC at 5:30 p.m. Pacific time (plus others who catch him at 8:30 p.m.) is far less than the 1.74 million who tuned in to the PBS show on average this past season before he left. Many other viewers watch him on rebroadcasts of the CNBC show, which air on nearly 150 PBS stations over the weekend in an unusual arrangement.

PBS says it isn't focused on ratings, but the network has seen its numbers drop for its Rukeyser-less show. The new program is hoping to appeal to a wider audience with a more diverse group of panelists. In another departure, Gibbs said, panelists will occasionally recommend stocks to sell instead of only stocks to acquire, and "We're going to hold them accountable" for their recommendations.

That's partly a way to address the current trend affecting a wide spectrum of financial television--namely, viewers aren't watching as much because the market is down. "When the market is going nowhere, people are less interested," Colvin said, adding, "The real importance of having guests tell you what to sell as well as what to buy is facing reality. Not every stock is a buy.... We're not turning this into the bear show, but we just want to get the mix a little more reasonable."

"Wall Street Week With Fortune" will feature former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin on the first episode, and Jim Chanos--president and founder of Kynikos Associates, who saw the Enron problems long before the rest of Wall Street--will also be a guest. Rukeyser's guest Friday is influential Peter Lynch, vice chairman of Fidelity Management & Research Co.

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