Wall Street Week: Unhip, Unabashed, Unbeaten LOUIS RUKEYSER, SUPERSTAR
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Every Friday, Louis Rukeyser checks into the same fustily elegant Baltimore hotel. From there he heads to the low-slung Maryland public-television-station building in Owings Mills, Md., where he's taped Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser for almost 28 years. After exchanging pleasantries with the gang at the front desk, he holes up for an afternoon of work--checking stock prices, answering fan mail, and writing the opening quips and comments he'll use on the show that night. A few minutes later his assistant brings in lunch, also always the same: a ham-and-cheese sandwich with water and coffee on the side. "My editor told me that journalists should always order ham-and-cheese on rye," he once said, "and leave the creativity for work."
"Creativity" isn't exactly the first word to leap to mind when you think of Wall Street Week. The show's format has been mostly unchanged since Nixon resigned. As buzz-driven financial shows proliferate, Rukeyser's program doesn't waver. Each week he opens with a pun-filled, groan-inducing monologue. Then he banters with some semiregular panelists, asking evergreen questions like "Where do you think the market is going?" Next, the host and panelists retire to the "sitting area," where they quiz a guest on stock picks and the market's performance. It may be flat and kind of creaky--and it sure ain't hip--but as Rukeyser says, "It works."
Boy, does it ever. Wall Street Week--the granddaddy of all business programs--is also the most popular, drawing 4.35 million viewers each week. While that's nothing by broadcast standards--attracting about as many eyeballs as the WB's Sister, Sister--it bulldozes its cable competition. CNBC's Squawk Box and CNN's Moneyline each attract fewer than 300,000 viewers. The bulk of Rukeyser's audience is conservative, middle-aged investors who want the tumultuous market simplified. "He's a bit like the guy at the helm of a ship," says Pierce McCreary, a 41-year-old frequent viewer who runs an executive-search firm. "He calmly steers people through the stock market."
That's okay by Rukeyser. He and his guests have a lot to gain from courting this audience, who--unlike their younger counterparts--have padded bank accounts and hefty retirement assets. As a result, Wall Street denizens consider Rukeyser's show the ultimate forum to plug their firm. "When you are a kid playing baseball, you dream of wearing New York pinstripes," explains Andrew Shore, Paine Webber's household-appliance analyst, who debuted on the show last month. "When you're in financial markets, getting on this show is what everyone dreams of."
If Squawk Box--CNBC's free-for-all market wind-up--is the Gen X frat party of the bull market, then Wall Street Week is the country-club cotillion. It's a relic of yesteryear, populated by near retirees. That's certainly the way it feels one recent Friday evening at 7:45 as taping begins at the show's studio. After his monologue Rukeyser turns to the panel of analysts and money managers to chat about politics, stock picks, and the market. Many of these panelists work as "elves"--technical forecasters who try to call the market's performance. Every week the show reports their accuracy with goofy caricatures of elves wearing halos or dunce caps. This week all the panelists are bullish. Good thing. Goading bears is one of Rukeyser's favorite pastimes.
Next everyone retires to the sitting area to receive their guest, Alfred Goldman, A.G. Edwards' chief market strategist. As is the custom, he's escorted by Ms. Smythe, Rukeyser's prim take on Vanna White. In reality, the backstage den mother is Natalie Selz, who has been with the show for ages. She sports glasses and loose-fitting frocks and uses Smythe as a stage name despite the fact that she's rarely--if ever--referred to on the air.
This formula is just fine with Rukeyser's viewers. They laugh at his corny barbs and are comfortable with this predictable structure, which eschews flashing stock quotes, "money honey" reporters, and up-to-the-minute market gossip. "On CNBC they tell you to sell. Two weeks later it's a buy," says Lavonne Raney, 82, who heads the central-Ohio division of the National Association of Investors. "But Louis doesn't get scared. He stays the course." Well worn as it is.