New Channel, Same Rukeyser

Snubbed by Maryland Public Television, the venerable Wall Street pundit -- and punster -- is happily up to his old tricks on CNBC

By Robert Barker

To err is human. But the Maryland Public Television "management" moves that wound up alienating its venerable host of Wall $treet Week, Louis Rukeyser, still boggle my mind. Searching in desperation for a comparable blunder to put L'affair Lou in some historical context, I've had to reach back past Hillarycare, beyond New Coke, all the way back to 1941, when Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union after deciding that what he really needed to enjoy life was an Eastern front.

Just as Stalin survived, so has Rukeyser. On May 10 at 8:30 p.m. EDT (and repeated at 11:30), he's set to appear for the fourth time in his new weekly show, Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street, at his new television address, CNBC, a unit of General Electric (GE ). I've watched each of the previous three editions and can assure you Uncle Lou's shtick is flourishing in all its familiar aspects -- the good, the bad, and the silly.

Like many in his legion of regular viewers, I've tolerated Rukeyser's signature silly puns for 30 years. This past week, Rukeyser noted that the Kentucky Derby would be run the next day, which he said explained why "there was so much horsing around" lately on Wall Street. He issued many more equine puns, none of which were any better.

LEADING LIGHTS.

  We indulge him in this because his show features some of Wall Street's most important minds. His audience of 2.7 million weekly viewers, built over 32 years and then given away in one bad week in March, is choice enough that many of the Street's leading lights had been happy to travel to Maryland Public Television's studios to appear on the show. Now, they have only to cross the Hudson to the Fort Lee (N.J.) home of CNBC. (The show has been offered to public TV: As of Apr. 26, 83 stations, covering 46% of the country, air Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street after it has run on CNBC.)

Strutting this stuff, Rukeyser hosted Goldman Sachs's (GS ) uber-strategist Abby Joseph Cohen on the first of his new shows and leading bond investor Bill Gross of Pimco Funds (PTTAX ) on the second. Rukeyser's featured guest last week was veteran stockpicker Mario Gabelli (GABAX ), while this week it's veteran stock-picker Ken Heebner (CGMFX ). For his inaugural program, CNBC's two showings drew 757,000 total viewers. By May 3, that dipped to 690,000.

At his best, Rukeyser snares an investment thinker of Heebner's caliber, asks simple questions -- "What stocks are you buying?" or "What stocks are you avoiding?" -- and lets the guest talk.

SLOW PITCHES.

  Critics have long knocked the show for its leisurely -- some might say sclerotic -- pace. For my money, that's one of its best aspects. Rukeyser represents the belief that wealth is made by optimism and slow, steady determination. This is a valuable counterpoint to the increasing frenzy of opinion and trading usually heard and fomented on investment broadcasts, very much including CNBC's.

Rukeyser isn't without fault. Pressed by his audience, he has been driven to ask his guests somewhat tougher questions in recent years. But he still does so in tones that often sound too deferential. And rarely does he ask a keen follow-up question. This past week, he let Gabelli wriggle away:

Rukeyser: "We have some feisty viewers of our program, and I want to read you a couple of e-mails that I got and let you respond. [One writes:] 'Don't let the Great Gabelli off the hook with Cablevision (CVC ). He's been hawking that one for years.'"

Gabelli: "Cable is a wonderful business. The stock is $23 to $24. It's been hit by a lot of dynamics -- worried about the Enron, worried about Adelphia, whose old symbol was ADLAC, A-D-L-A-C, so we call it ADLAC -- and I think this is a terrific buy. You should aggressively buy Cablevision. It's $23 to $24. We think the take-out value is $75. Lots of wonderful assets there."

Rukeyser: "Get me to a telephone."

He delivered that last line with tongue in cheek. Just the same, Cablevision traded at $91.50 a share in January, 2001, and I doubt the viewer who wrote that e-mail feels as if he or she got a satisfactory answer.

WALKING WOUNDED.

  While Rukeyser cavorts in New Jersey, Maryland Public Television and its new partner, AOL Time Warner (AOL ), aren't sitting by idly. They plan to launch their recreation, Wall $treet Week With Fortune, on June 28. It will feature Karen Gibbs, late of Fox News (FOX ), and Geoffrey Colvin, Fortune's editorial director. Their strategy remains indistinct.

Until then, the MPT show is limping along with two guest hosts, Ray Brady and Marshall Loeb. The other night, I watched Loeb and his four guests. Three of them I had never heard of, but I found the show offered plenty of intellectual nutrition and was only twice as deadly dull as I expected it to be.

To be fair to Loeb, who has done only a smattering of TV, asking him to step into the lineup for Rukeyser is like asking former President Bush to take over first base for the Oakland Athletics, now that Jason Giambi is playing in the Bronx. All in all, though, you can count on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays winning the World Series before MPT dents CNBC's triumphant presentation of the new-old Rukeyser show.

Barker covers personal finance in his Barker Portfolio column for BusinessWeek. His barker.online column appears every Friday, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell