Patrick Gottsch, Founder RFD TV, has a very clear mission when it comes to RFD TV’s programming, branding and market position. "We have two goals,” he says, “They are, one, to serve the needs and interests of rural America and, number two (which is as important) is to reconnect the city with the country. If there is one thing that unites rural America, whether they are in agriculture or not is that we have to do a better job of communicating with the folks in the city."
RFD TV, recently added to the 12 million home Charter system, is arguably the fastest growing cable network in 2016. It is 16 years old, reaches over 50 million homes across the U.S. in both rural and urban markets, is measured by Nielsen and repped by Sony Pictures Television Ad Sales. The network offers five hours of news programming a day combined with entertainment programming spanning rural tastes like music, rodeos and country western sports programming. It is one of the few remaining family owned media companies in the U.S. with, as Gottsch states, “strong cash flow.”
Gottsch, who grew up on a farm, believes that, “There is a real disconnect and a growing disconnect between urban and rural America over the last couple of decades. It is frustrating that programming for rural America is all programming with an urban perspective. We have got to get people thinking differently about rural Amwerica.” That disconnect was made all the more evident by the results and aftermath of this most recent Presidential Election, which showed just how differently rural and urban America voted, predicated on different, sometimes opposing, self-interests and challenges.
Although America’s farms contributed over $177 billion to the U.S. economy, some advertisers and MVPDs do not always see the value and strength of rural American audiences and consumers. Many, like Chevy, Nationwide, RAM and Polaris do see the value. But some like McDonalds, Walmart (which surprisingly started in rural America) and others, don’t. Rural consumers have high median net worth according to MRI (2016 Doublebase) with a 122 index ($278,442 vs. Total US $227,551) and have a higher median earned income $41,101 than the Total US $38,920 in the same study. They are also heavy users of a variety of household items, often own multiple vehicles, enjoy a range of leisure activities… and they vote! Ignoring this audience is a big mistake, as Gottsch explains in this exclusive interview.
Charlene Weisler: How do you see the role of RFD TV in a channel line-up?
Patrick Gottsch: We try to do our part by offering a TV channel that focuses on rural interests that are distributed into the cities. We are on Dish network and Direct TV, Charter, ATT uVerse, Mediacom and others and we are accomplishing that goal. We are a business channel for rural America in the morning, but instead of focusing on the stock markets like CNBC, Bloomberg and Fox, we are focused on the commodity market out of Chicago. We have prime time news programming but it is the rural evening news – it’s not the farm news but we have a bureau in Washington DC that works on the Hill, works with different agencies with the USDA. We cover stories dealing with rural education, rural healthcare, rural development and, of course, agriculture. We actually have a larger audience in the city than in the country. They see this as unique programming. Unfortunately, the only time that rural news is covered by outlets such as Fox or CNN is when there is a disaster. There are 27 million homes outside of A and B counties and 57 million people living in rural America. Many of our viewers have farms that have been in their family for generations. It is a different lifestyle. They have different values, they have different needs. Many of the major associations have programs on our air - corn, wheat and beef. We are the only network serving rural America and their unique interests and lifestyles.
Charlene Weisler: What are some of the larger issues that need to be covered for rural viewers to connect them to urban America?
Patrick Gottsch: We were frustrated by the Presidential debates – no questions were asked about rural America. We hosted a series of Rural Town Hall – one hour in primetime live, offered to each and every candidate and they could come on free of charge. The “Rural Town Hall” series featured candidates including Sen. Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Gov. Bobby Jindal, Jim Webb, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and special guest USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and the series just won the CableFax Award for Public Affairs programming. There were only two rules: #1 The questions would only be about rural and agricultural issues and #2 You couldn’t bad mouth another candidate. It was a tremendous success. One of the biggest issues now is that farmers are getting old – their average age is 62, and everyone is concerned about passing on the farm to the next generation. The big question is the death tax. How can the land be passed on to the next generation to produce the food that the folks in the city need? Rural healthcare is just as important as it is from urban perspective. Rural development - Many of our small towns are losing businesses. Nobody is paying attention to rural America and doing things to develop reasons for our sons and daughters to remain in small towns. This is not being addressed.
Charlene Weisler: It is a bit ironic that our President-elect who captured much of the rural vote is a native New Yorker who grew up and lives in the city.
Patrick Gottsch: Donald Trump could have run as a Republican or a Democrat. It didn’t matter. It was his independence. He seems to have strengthened people – they want change and he basically said, “What do you have to lose?” I think that resonated. The commodity markets this summer are at their lowest point that they have been in ten years - $3 corn, $8 soybeans, $4 wheat. Everything in rural America revolves around commodity prices. If farmers are getting good prices for their crops they are buying new cars, taking vacations, making donations.
Charlene Weisler: Aren’t most farms large corporate farms?
Patrick Gottsch: No. That is a misconception. Less than 1% of all farms are corporate farms. 99% of all American farms are family farms that have been in the family for generations.
Charlene Weisler: Is there a challenge in reaching certain advertisers?
Patrick Gottsch: There is a wall built between rural and urban America. We tell advertisers that we are beating CNN and MSNBC in Nielsen ratings* and in MRI** among all networks in reaching Middle America but ad agencies and clients ignore Middle America. Our viewers own an average of four pick-up trucks. Chevy understands that and advertises on our air but Ford Trucks tells us that they reach our consumer through football. Our audience is vibrant and has different needs. The biggest frustration is with the recent election. Secretary Clinton stopped buying on our air while Trump bought every spot we had in the last three weeks leading up to the election.
Charlene Weisler: How are you getting more distribution?
Patrick Gottsch: It is a challenge. This past February we were dropped by FIOS who also dropped Outdoor, Sportsman and the Weather Channels. They are dumping rural networks. Comcast dropped us and when they announced their merger with Time Warner I testified on Capitol Hill. We run up against this all the time. But now we will be reaching many new and larger urban markets thanks to Charter who will be rolling us out in markets like New York City, LA, Raleigh and Cleveland in December.
Charlene Weisler: Do you have a digital strategy?
Patrick Gottsch: Yes. We have a Country Club that we stream on VOD and on Roku. Our disadvantage is that the speed of broadband is not as good in rural areas and our demo is older. They don’t want to watch on handhelds – they want to watch on their big screen TVs. We have a deal with Adobe to enable authentication and we are working with our cable and satellite affiliates to offer TV Everywhere availability. Some distributors, like AT&T already have that option enabled so viewers with RFD-TV in their package can watch us anywhere. We are also working to expand over the top options like Amazon, YouTube and Roku for viewers that want to supplement their current pay TV packages or sample our content. We are someone restricted in what we can offer given our current distribution contracts but that is evolving and we will evolve with the changing ecosystem.
Charlene Weisler: What is your global strategy?
Patrick Gottsch: Globally we cross borders and our programming plays well across the world. I have traveled to Brazil to attend a farm show and you would think that you are in America. We have the same values and concerns and want to talk about the same things. We are all in the same boat. The world will soon have 9 billion people in it. How do you feed everyone with less land and water? Something has to give. We are actively looking for ways to exchange news with other countries including Brazil, South Africa, Vietnam, India and South Korea. American farmers produce food that is exported around the world. They play a critical role in the global food marketplace. In terms of reaching new international customers, we have recently hired a distribution and marketing specialist to distribute our content internationally via the growing number of OTT platforms that incumbent distributors are launching. We already have a base of international viewers that subscribe to our Country Club platform from countries such as Germany, Canada and New Zealand that we will be building on.
Charlene Weisler: What is your message to advertisers?
Patrick Gottsch: We are a family owned business and have a good cash flow. We know that consumers want rural programming – over 200,000 published comments during the Comcast / Time Warner merger discussions at the FCC to please protect rural America. We have a very loyal audience. RFD TV is very important to rural America. So we will stay the course whether advertisers come or not. There are advertisers who do recognize and appreciate the rural consumer. But some advertisers think they are reaching this audience through other programming such as football - They are not. Don’t take this audience for granted.
*Source: Nielsen Media Research, 2Q16, M-F 9a-2p) with HOH Farmer 18+ viewing, RFD 0.16 rating vs CNN 0.09 and MSNBC 0.12
** Source: GfK MRI (2016 Doublebase), A18+, RDF-TV is ranked: No. 1 in Middle America (OH, IN, IL, MI, WI, IA, MN, MO, ND, SD, NE, KS) with an index of 162 (WGN America is No. 2 at 154 index). No. 1 in B, C or D counties (index at 152 with No. 2 INSP at 140).