Cable network RLTV goes after the over-50 crowd
“Oh man, do I want to be on Retirement Living TV?” the former host of ABC's "Good Morning America" recalled thinking to herself. The network, which has since dropped the phrase "Retirement Living" in favor of "Redefine Life," was interested in Lunden because of her experience caring for her elderly mother.
For Lunden, hosting a show on RLTV meant not only coming to terms with the idea of working for a channel aimed at Americans over 50, it also meant accepting the fact that at 61, she was right in their demographic sweet spot.
“I can't even wrap my brain around the fact that I'm 60-plus,” Lunden said with a laugh.
But after making “Taking Care With Joan Lunden” for RLTV in 2010, she's overcome any fears she had about being affiliated with the channel and has two new projects in the works. “The 50-plus audience is a force to be reckoned with,” she said
Lunden's realization is what John Erickson, the founder of RLTV, is banking on. Erickson, who made his fortune building large-scale retirement communities, launched RLTV with a goal of programming to an older audience long ignored by Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
"We [as a culture] don't have a very positive attitude about aging, said the 68-year-old Erickson during an interview from RLTV's Baltimore's headquarters. “We don't celebrate these 25 or 30 years of life in any meaningful way that give people a sense of honor or dignity and involvement.”
For decades, the television industry has built its business around reaching the 18-49 demographic. Advertisers have always paid more to reach younger viewers, believing they are easier to persuade to try new products.
Older viewers, on the other hand, have always been taken for granted. As people age, they watch more TV, so programmers and advertisers figure they don't need to make any special effort to reach out to them or create shows tailored to them. Furthermore, there is a perception that as people age, they become stuck in their ways with regards to spending habits and adapting to new technologies.
Now, though, some of those executives who preached the gospel of 18-49 are singing a different tune as they find themselves inching closer to Social Security.
Currently available in 15 million homes (in Southern California it is offered on Verizon FiOS), RLTV hopes to double its reach by the end of 2012.
That growth will be key if RLTV is going to land major advertisers. Right now, its reach is too small to attract much national advertising beyond cheesy direct promotional spots. And it does not bother having its small audience tracked by Nielsen.
“There's no doubt about it, it's a hard sell,” said Paul FitzPatrick, RLTV's president and chief executive officer.
In anticipation of reaching a bigger audience, RLTV has been reaching out more to advertisers to build awareness for the network. Last fall, RLTV executives went on the road to New York and Los Angeles to pitch the network to top advertising agencies.
“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.
As RLTV becomes available in more homes, it will start to open up its wallet to spend more on programming. Erickson said he hopes to invest another $40 million to $50 million on programming and promotion over the next few years and expects the channel, which he says is breaking even now, to become profitable at that time.
RLTV's current lineup is primarily made up of lifestyle and talk shows. “Brady Bunch” mom Florence Henderson hosts a talk show and co-hosts a cooking program. ABC News veterans Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts provide political coverage, and former “Today” co-host Deborah Norville has a show called “Making Medicare Work for You.” Reruns of NBC's popular Sunday morning political magazine “Meet the Press” also air on RLTV on Monday nights.
The network has dabbled in reality programming as well, with the dating show “Another Chance for Romance” and with “Sunset Daze,” best described as its version of MTV's “Jersey Shore” about adventurous senior citizens in Surprise, Ariz. In one episode a character talks about perhaps needing Viagra to keep pace with a woman who is particularly adept at grinding her hips.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: John Erickson, the founder of RLTV. Credit: Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun