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I Want My Money TV. But Which One?

By Robert Barker My expectations for Wall $treet Week with Fortune -- the new, Louis Rukeyser-free money-and-markets program from Maryland Public Television (MPT) -- were pretty low. Still, I was unprepared for how very, very bad the show proved to be in its June 28 debut. (Rukeyser, you will recall, got himself removed from Wall $treet Week last March after complaining on the air about the producers' intent to revamp the show -- and reduce his role.)

The premier episode of Wall Street with Fortune was positively cringe-inspiring, with the herky-jerky on-camera manners of hosts Karen Gibbs and Geoff Colvin, their fawning interview with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and the graceless questioning of noted short-seller Jim Chanos and Vanguard Windsor II Fund (VWNFX) manager Jim Barrow. I had a hard time imagining that the producers -- much less viewers -- would even dare to try again the following week.

Dare they did, and I'm relieved to tell you that the show, which in most cities appears Fridays at 8:30 p.m., got a bit better over each of the next two weeks. It's no barrel of laughs, mind you, and you may find yourself longing for Rukeyser's puns and quips. But in a homely, plodding fashion, Wall $treet Week with Fortune is beginning to stake out its own turf in the field of investment TV.

TIPS AND SLIPS. One thing that's appealing is the exposure the show is giving to a few new faces. Sallie Krawcheck, chief executive of the investment research firm Sanford C. Bernstein, appeared on July 5 and offered a refreshing series of direct answers -- none of them knee-jerk bullish. Asked by Colvin what investors should make of that day's big leap in the Dow Jones industrial average, Krawcheck warned against getting too excited about what happened when "all the bosses [on Wall Street] were at the beach.... I wouldn't read too much into it at all." Good advice, it turned out.

Even better, however, was what happened after another of that evening's guests, Sanford C. Bernstein strategist Vadim Zlotnikov, recommended shares in Wyeth (WYE) at $48.13 apiece. The following week, the stock promptly sank nearly 22% on bad news about the company's hormone-replacement drug. Instead of ignoring such a glaring development, as many TV investment shows have done. Wall $treet Week with Fortune made an accounting of it for viewers near the top of its next show. Let's hope it keeps respecting its audience in that way.

That's not to say all is well on the show's set in Owings Mills, Md. Gibbs and Colvin are still feeling their way around the show -- not to mention the cameras and teleprompters. While there had been lots of talk about trying to make the show more appealing to younger viewers, including a new, up-tempo version of its familiar theme music, no one will mistake this as Money TV for the Hip-Hop Generation. Ethan Allen Interiors (ETH) gets a credit for furnishings on the set, none of which were chosen from the company's contemporary collections.

OLD MASTER. Preliminary ratings data, according to Public Broadcasting Service, indicate that 800,000 households tuned in on June 28, followed by 700,000 on July 5, and 600,000 on July 12. The comparable-week shows a year ago drew an average of 1.1 million households, a PBS spokesman told me.

Meanwhile, Rukeyser, who has since taken his shtick to CNBC's Ft. Lee (N.J.) studios, is following pretty much the script that has served him for 32 years. His Louis Rukeyeser's Wall Street, shown at 8:30 p.m. on Fridays, airs again on Fridays at 11:30 p.m. (Later in the weekend, it's shown on 158 public television stations.) On June 28, in his first head-to-head battle with Wall $treet Week with Fortune, Rukeyser emerged triumphant by securing the presence on his set of legendary stock-picker Peter Lynch for a rare, if unilluminating, interview. Rukeyser's is a smooth act, running happily in its rut.

The Rukeyser show over those three Fridays averaged 484,333 households at its primary, 8:30 p.m. showing, according to CNBC, and an additional 232,000 on average at 11:30 p.m. No figures for those weeks are available yet for Rukeyser's audience on public TV. But if you add those, his total audience would appear to be bigger.

PFIZER UPDATE. I can't say I'll be setting my VCR to record each and every edition of Wall $treet Week with Fortune. But I will be checking each Friday to see which show will be featuring which guests. Tonight, July 19, Rukeyser is set to host Susan Byrne, CEO of Westwood Holdings Group (WHG) and a sharp stock-picker. Colvin and Gibbs are scheduled to sit down with Hank McKinnell, CEO of drugmaker Pfizer (PFE).

Because Pfizer this week unveiled a merger with Pharmacia (PHA), creating the world's biggest pharmaceutical company, I'm choosing to watch McKinnell on Wall $treet Week with Fortune. In the end, that's the best part: Rukeyser's execution and rebirth, together with the reconstituted show from MPT, has yielded a new, higher level of competition that is already giving viewers better choices. Barker covers personal finance in his Barker Portfolio column for BusinessWeek. His column appears every Friday, only on BusinessWeek Online

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