Public television's longest-running weekly prime-time series, Wall Street Week, airs for the last time tonight, marking the death of what was once Maryland Public Television's most profitable show and, at least for now, the end of an era for the broadcaster as a significant source of programming for a national audience.
"Along with Sesame Street, it was one of the first shows on PBS - a landmark series by anybody's definition," said Douglas Gomery, professor and media economist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "In today's jargon, it was 'the brand.' You don't end a show with that kind of history and not wind up changing your identity - whether intended or not."
At its peak, in the 1980s, Wall Street Week boasted a weekly audience of 2.6 million viewers and earned the station $4 million a year in profits. The only prime-time series with a longer tenure was CBS' venerable 60 Minutes.
The show's demise coincides with a highly partisan national debate on the future of the Public Broadcasting Service, the nation's public television network.
On a national level, conservative Republicans have tried to cut the PBS budget and drastically alter what they see as a liberal bias in public broadcasting. The House voted down yesterday a proposal to cut $100 million from a $400 million public broadcasting budget. While MPT gets only 5.1 percent of its budget from federal grants, Robert J. Shuman, who heads MPT, estimates that if approved, the committee's proposal would have cost the broadcaster $650,000 next year.
Without Wall Street Week, of which Louis Rukeyser was host for 32 of its 35 years, MPT can no longer live up to the claim on its Web site of being "one of the top producers of nationally distributed programs for the public broadcasting system." In its last three years, the financial advice program had as anchors Karen Gibbs and Geoffrey Colvin.
"The cancellation of Wall Street Week certainly marks a transition in identity for MPT," said Gomery. "That was their flagship show. They could say, 'We're a national producer.' Maybe not the biggest national producer, but they had a top national show."
While acknowledging that the station is at a crossroads, MPT President and CEO Shuman says the switch away from national programming represents an opportunity to refocus resources on regional shows rather than trying to compete with such top PBS stations as Boston's WGBH or New York's WNET.
Shuman stressed the station's commitment to putting the bulk of its harder-to-come-by resources into the regional shows that air under a "Public Square" label: Direct Connection with Jeff Salkin, ArtWorks This Week, State Circle, Outdoors Maryland and Business Connection.
"I really see it as a 'village green' where the issues in our community are discussed," he said. Wall Street Week, with its higher production costs, national orientation and audience that has steadily decreased since host Rukeyser was fired in 2002, does not fit the model.
Either way, the end of Wall Street Week is symptomatic of the ways in which a major public broadcasting institution is trying to adapt to an increasingly complex, competitive and political media environment.
Steve Behrens, editor of Current, the national biweekly newspaper devoted to coverage of public broadcasting, points to the political component in the equation of change at MPT: "They have lost their biggest production, and it's partly because their board of directors, which is a state agency, doesn't believe that they're in the business of going way out on the limb any more making national programs. ... National programs involve great risk, and to make them, they would have to put their money where their mouth is and do a lot of things that state agencies don't like to do."
Owned by the state
Unlike with many other public television stations, the state holds the license granted to MPT by the Federal Communications Commission. At Washington's WETA, for example, the license is held by a nonprofit community group. And the license for WHUT at Howard University is held by the school.
MPT, which in 2005 received about one-third of its $33.7 million budget from the state, is run by the Maryland Broadcasting Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor.
The MPT flow chart for the commission places Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. at the top. Directly below him sits commission Chairman Thomas F. Brady, executive vice president for Constellation Energy, who was appointed to the post by the governor in 2003. Next in line comes Shuman.
Hired to lead MPT in 1996 when Democrat Parris N. Glendening was governor, Shuman said there has been no political pressure from the Ehrlich administration. "There really hasn't been - not at all," he said this week while in Washington, where he had gone to lobby Congress to restore the funding cuts made in House committee. "I appreciate a question like that, because I think our community should know."
Decreases in revenue
Even without the proposed federal cuts for 2006, MPT is working with less these days. In 2002, it had a budget of $38 million. This year, the budget is $33.7 million, and it will drop to $30.3 million in fiscal year 2006.
"In 2002, the public television industry as a whole began experiencing revenue decreases resulting from the economic downturn, and local stations around the country saw less revenue from members who had fewer dollars to contribute," Larry Hoffman, vice president of corporate communications, said yesterday via e-mail.
"Given these economic realities, MPT and many other local public television stations made the conscious decision to downsize and focus operations on our traditional, primary mission of local service to our communities."
In the final analysis, MPT's decision to go local and jettison Wall Street Week might be a tough but wise choice, said media analysts. "It's a difficult decision, canceling a show like Wall Street Week," Behrens said. "All the big stations would like to do more national programming. ... But given the resources available and the changing world of media, they all know that local broadcasting is their exclusive niche - and their future."
What: Wall Street Week with Fortune
When: Tonight at 8:30
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)
In brief: The last episode of a landmark program