After a 13-year hiatus, "Wall Street Week" returned to the airwaves this past weekend. This reimagined version of the iconic, guest-driven and pun-filled program that aired on PBS with its original host on Friday nights until 2002, is today under new management by a subsidiary of the ubiquitous hedge fund, SkyBridge Capital, and its founder, Anthony Scaramucci.
Once a source of independent, credible and accessible investment insight for the masses, the new "Wall Street Week" can be seen as the latest mile marker on the twisting path of financial services marketing.
While "Wall Street Week" of old was merely underwritten on public television by the likes of Lockheed, Prudential, Oppenheimer and MFS, the 2015 version broadcast on commercial networks and is fully owned and operated by an arm of a company that sells investments. As such it’s reasonable to wonder what the new approach will mean.
Will "Wall Street Week" turn into a brand building, sponsored, content machine, or will its roots remain as a useful, credible and respected investment program? After viewing the first show, the answer to each of those questions might be "yes"; there’s reason to fear – and reason to be hopeful – for the future of "Wall Street Week."
In its three-decade-plus run from the early 1970s, the fully titled "Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser" was produced by Maryland Public Television and was the first and, for a long time, the only investment program on television. It gained power, influence and, at its peak, more than 4 million weekly viewers under its founder and host, Mr. Rukeyser, a veteran journalist. "He brought finance and economics to ordinary viewers and investors," said Rukeyser’s 2006 obituary from The Associated Press, "and was rewarded with the largest audience in the history of financial journalism."
In addition to being the only game in town, Rukeyser’s audience flocked to him because he was funny, insisted on making his topics and guests understandable, and practiced old-school journalism focused solely on the needs and interests of his viewers.
For one example, the annual year-end program not only asked top analyst panelists for their year-ahead market picks, but put them on the spot by also asking why their previous year’s forecasts did or did not pan out. For another, the so-called "Rukeyser Effect" – which regularly saw a Monday morning jump in the price of stocks mentioned on Friday’s show -- kept Street pros watching, along with moms and pops.
The New 'Wall Street Week'
So how will "Wall Street Week" brought to you by SkyBridge stand up to "Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser"?
On the plus side, the basic premise of the program remains intact, even if it was swung on and often missed during this weekend’s first show. In the lead up to the launch, co-host Mr. Scaramucci went to great lengths to talk about continuing the program’s legacy of reaching average investors. In his words: "Empower, educate and motivate you to make wealth a priority."
On Sunday, he repeatedly found himself steering his jargon-heavy panelists back to the how does it-matter-to-the-average-investor perspective. That effort was critical as guests too often seemed to be talking among themselves about "dislocations in the high yield market," "MLPs", "carry trades", and investing in "emerging market local currency debt."
There seems to be a market need for an intensely personal finance weekly program. CNBC and its all-day-long competitors have a lock on deep dive trader talk.
Mr. Scaramucci, who cut his television chops on CNBC, will provide a better product to his viewers as soon as he distances this new show from that pack.
That said, maintaining the legacy credibility and independence of the "Wall Street Week" brand is difficult in today’s media environment. Built on the now shifting sands of advertising and subscriptions, media companies in all formats are going to great lengths to stay alive and relevant. That can translate into so-called native advertising, content generation and other sponsor-driven tools that blur the lines between independent media and commercial interests. That reality is one that audiences are often willing to accept, and can hardly avoid, as long as the results provide useful, topical and accurate information.
The fine print reality of the new "Wall Street Week" is that it "accepts cash advertising, sponsorship, paid insertions and other forms of programming compensation" that "may influence content, topics and (web site) posts." Further, "participants may pay SkyBridge to be on the program" and "participants, advertisers and sponsors may have service or other business relationships with SkyBridge Media or its affiliates or parent company."
Like Mr. Scaramucci, Mr. Rukeyser was no stranger to success or commercialization. (Disclosure: I worked with Mr. Rukeyser, Maryland Public Television and "Wall Street Week" to promote various anniversaries and other events in the 1980s.) Beyond "Wall Street Week," Mr. Rukeyser authored successful books, sold newsletters, gave expensive speeches and was paid to shill investments, all (mostly) accepted activities of a journalist in good standing of his day. Likewise, Mr. Scaramucci is acting in concert with his times.
SkyBridge’ s "Wall Street Week" can succeed with proper disclosure, a balanced journalistic approach, and a genuine interest in a better educated investing public. "An educated consumer is our best customer," it’s been said.
With a portrait of Mr. Rukeyser peering down on the new program’s Times Square studio, let’s hope the new "Wall Street Week" can fulfill its legacy, the needs of its new owners, and, mostly, the needs of its viewers.
Thomas Walek is president, Capital Markets and Financial Services for Peppercomm.