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RLTV targets aging boomers

Cable channel RLTV caters to the 50-plus set with programming starring aging boomers. Will advertisers follow?

January 22, 2012|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times
  • As part of RLTVs lineup, former Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson hosts a talk show and co-hosts a cooking show.
As part of RLTVs lineup, former Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson hosts… (Getty Images/RLTV )

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.

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.

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.

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."

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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