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RLTV targets aging boomers

Kids have Nickelodeon and Disney. Women have Lifetime and Oxygen. Jocks have ESPN, and nerds have G4. Gays and lesbians have Logo. There’s even Animal Planet, for pet people.

Everyone has a TV channel these days, except senior citizens. The fastest-growing and wealthiest segment of the population has been ignored or forgotten by Hollywood’s broadcast and cable networks. Until now.

John Erickson, a 68-year-old who made his fortune building large retirement communities, has created RLTV, a cable channel designed for the AARP-adjacent. He has programmed it with talk shows including “Making Medicare Work for You,” documentaries such as “To Not Fade Away” about the early stages ofAlzheimer’s disease and, on a lighter note, reality shows including “Another Chance for Romance” and “Sunset Daze,” best described as a"Jersey Shore” for adventurous senior citizens in Surprise, Ariz.

Fronting the shows is a collection of aging TV presenters. Former morning news hosts Joan Lunden, 61, and Deborah Norville, 53, have RLTV shows. So do former prime-time personalities Sam Donaldson and Florence Henderson, both 77.

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For decades, the television industry has built its business around reaching people younger than 50, in part because TV advertisers believe they are easier to persuade to try new products. And anyway, according to Nielsen, people watch more television as they age. Programmers figure they don’t need to make any special effort or create shows to bring older viewers to TV or keep them there.

So prime time is loaded with raunchy sitcoms, racy dramas and exploitative reality shows populated by beautiful women and buffed-up men. If there are characters older than 60 on these shows, they’re generally there as a punch line or to talk dirty a la 90-year-old Betty White on TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” or 85-year-old Cloris Leachman on Fox’s"Raising Hope.” Even news programs, which traditionally skew older, have become a little obsessed with youth.ABC’s once hard-hitting"Nightline” now spends much of its time covering pop culture trends.

But the power of the aging baby boomers can’t be ignored. According to the 2010 census, there are more than 99 million Americans older than 50. The over-50s are also one of the fastest-growing groups on Facebook.

And they have money. The AARP, citing information from the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey, says adults over the age of 50 spent $2.7 trillion on consumer goods in 2010.

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At the same time, the networks may be slowly turning their attention to the power of the aging audience — perhaps as network executives age and find they are not the people their grandparents were.

One of NBC’s few successes of the last few years is the legal drama “Harry’s Law,” starring 63-year-old Kathy Bates as a tough-talking lawyer.

Tim Allen, the 58-year-old comedian who in the 1990s played a dad in the ABC comedy hit “Home Improvement” is back on the network playing a grandfather in"Last Man Standing.” The recently rediscovered Betty White is headlining a new NBC hidden-camera reality show, “Off Their Rockers,” in which old people pull pranks on their juniors.

Even HBO, whose programs are often filled with nudity and sex among the young and gorgeous, is getting into the act. Its new horse-racing drama “Luck” stars 74-year-old Dustin Hoffman and 70-year-old Nick Nolte.

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Network TV advertisers, the ones who ultimately pay for that programming, are coming to the party too.

“Advertisers are waking up to the fact that the 50-plus population is an audience they have to pay attention to,” said Kevin Donnellan, an executive vice president with the AARP, the chief lobbying arm for older Americans and a producer of two magazine shows for RLTV. “We’re no longer living in that era where people are thinking about their father’s Oldsmobile.”

Media buyers acknowledge that over the last few years more dollars are being pushed toward content that attracts an older audience.

“There is a shift,” said Andy Donchin, director of media investments at Carat, which buys ad time for companies including Home Depot and the restaurant chain Outback. “The older people are very important. They watch a lot of television, and they have disposable income.”

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John Erickson got the idea for RLTV — originally called Retirement Living TV and recently changed to Redefine Life — after he built TV studios for residents of his retirement communities and watched them program their own in-house networks.

“What amazed me was the interest level of the residents in their own lives and how much attention they paid to this little television channel,” Erickson said.

So in 2006, Erickson hired a few executives with TV experience and hit the road to pitch the concept to the cable and satellite operators who serve as the gatekeepers to the airwaves. His quest: to start a network aimed at the forgotten demographic.

He was not given a warm welcome.

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“People would say, ‘I think it is probably a good idea, but I don’t think anybody will ever carry it,’” Erickson said. “Fortunately, I heard the first half and ignored the second.”

Erickson persevered and eventually finagled a meeting with Steve Burke, then president ofComcast Corp., the nation’s largest cable operator, with more than 20 million subscribers.

Burke, too, was resistant. He told Erickson that Comcast gets asked to launch hundreds of new channels, and most flop. “If that’s what you’re here for, let’s move on to the next subject,” Erickson recalls Burke saying. (Burke, who is now chief executive of Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit, declined to comment for this article.)

Erickson argued that the older-than-50 crowd was going to be the only significantly growing segment of the population for the next 15 to 20 years and it was silly to ignore them.

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“They have most of the wealth in this country, and it is very easy to find out what they’re really interested in if you engage them instead of thinking they should all sit at home and watch another ‘Murder, She Wrote’ rerun,” Erickson told Burke.

Burke wasn’t completely sold, but he cut a deal to sell RLTV a block of afternoon time on a few Comcast systems in the Northeast for $5 million a year.

Erickson recruited Elliot Jacobson, a veteran production executive with credits ranging from MTV to PBS, to program his channel.

“I gave him the topics,” Erickson said. “Healthcare, finance, politics, travel — the categories are pretty easy.”

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Jacobson soon hired former NBC News White House correspondent John Palmer to host an interview show called “Encore” and a financial advice program called “The Prudent Advisor.”

Erickson also bought some time on satellite broadcaster DirecTV to give his start-up a national footprint. In time, Burke agreed to become more of a partner. Comcast took a 20% stake in RLTV, which helped Erickson pay for developing the channel. The rest of the $125 million invested in RLTV has come from Erickson’s own venture.

With Comcast on board, Erickson was able to sign up other distributors and increase the reach of the network to 15 million homes nationally. Erickson said RLTV has had successful talks with major cable operators and hopes to double its reach by the end of 2012.

But it’s still slow going — and that may continue. “There’s no doubt about it, it’s a hard sell,” said Paul FitzPatrick, who was hired as RLTV’s president and chief operating officer after stints as chief operating officer of the Weather Channel, Golf Channel and Hallmark Channel parent Crown Media.

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Right now, RLTV’s reach is too small to attract much national advertising beyond cheesy direct marketing spots. But RLTV has been reaching out more to advertisers to build awareness for the network. Last fall, RLTV executives went to New York and Los Angeles to pitch their network to top advertising agencies, with some success.

“I’ve looked at them a little more closely,” said Francois Lee, a vice president at MediaVest, whose clients include Wal-Mart, Kraft, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft.

RLTV’s current lineup features “Brady Bunch” mom Florence Henderson hosting a talk show and co-hosting a cooking show. ABC News veterans Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts co-host “Primary Issues,” about the presidential campaign. Former"Today” co-host Deborah Norville has a show called “Making Medicare Work for You.” Former"Good Morning America” co-host Joan Lunden has a show about caring for the aged called “Taking Care With Joan Lunden.” Reruns of NBC’s popular Sunday morning political magazine"Meet the Press” air on RLTV on Monday nights.

RLTV’s brass wants a mix of public affairs and entertainment programming, but there are no immediate plans for the channel to produce its own sitcoms or buy reruns of other shows.

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On Jacobson’s wish list is a boomer version of Fox’s hit “American Idol"and a prime-time game show, as well as programs focused on intergenerational issues. What he won’t do, he promises, is take shots at his audience or abandon them for younger shows to boost ratings.

“It is important for us to be advocates for the demographic we serve,” he said.

As RLTV becomes available in more homes, it will start to open up its wallet for new material. Erickson hopes to invest an additional $40 million to $50 million on programming and promotion over the next few years.

At least one of RLTV’s earliest casting coups now seems pleased to be associated with the channel, though she was at first resistant.

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“I can’t even wrap my brain around the fact that I’m 60-plus,” former anchor Lunden said. But since starting her first RLTV show in 2010, she has two new RLTV projects in the works. “The 50-plus audience is a force to be reckoned with,” she said.

She may have more company soon. RLTV founder Erickson said older TV actors resent being dismissed from prime time. “I don’t care who you are in Hollywood; you’ve been pastured by this time,” he said. “This gets you to come back. We’re getting good access to talent.”

RLTV’s first show host said his peers seem eager to join the new network.

“I’ve had inquiries from a half-dozen people I know in the business who are no longer working asking how to get on RLTV,” said John Palmer, 73.

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joe.flint@latimes.com


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