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Inside RFD-TV, the network that covets rural and older viewers

Westwind Farm on "FarmHer," a series on RFD-TV which focuses on women in agriculture. Courtesy RFD-TV.

In the Nashville offices of RFD-TV, a network focused on agriculture and the rural lifestyle, there are hundreds of thousands of letters from fans. The notes, stacked in thick binders, were sent to the Federal Communications Commission in 2016, when Verizon Fios decided to remove the channel from its lineup.

"My husband and I, being seniors, loved to watch the RFD-TV channel. The channel has good clean wholesome programs and we don't have to feel embarrassed if company should stop by."

"I am very angered with Verizon Fios TV for removing RFD TV from their lineup. Viewing farm and ranch-related programs are of great interest to me even though I don't live in the country."

"Verizon has dropped RFD TV, which had on it a program that was a high point of my week called 'Trains and Locomotives.' No other source has similar information and I miss it."

And so on. While founder Patrick Gottsch was disheartened when Verizon dropped the channel (still available in 52 million homes), he wasn't surprised about the passionate response. He believes too many networks ignore senior citizens and the rural audience.

The latter group especially has caused a great deal of soul-searching over the last year, after President Donald Trump's victory, aided by rural voters in states such as Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, stunned the entertainment world. While some TV channels are headquartered in middle America (Scripps's HGTV and Food Network in Knoxville, Tennessee, CMT and GAC in Nashville), most are based on the coasts. By inauguration, networks were wondering if voters who felt "forgotten" by politicians also felt forgotten by television networks.

The family-owned RFD-TV, which launched in 2000, is the rare channel that did not have that problem in 2017.

Gottsch, who says the network's mission is to "reconnect city with country," says he was not at all surprised when Trump won. When talking to people in rural areas in the weeks before the election, he couldn't find a woman who planned to vote for Hillary Clinton. He attended the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention, and urged both parties to focus on rural issues. Hillary Clinton's campaign declined to advertise on RFD-TV; Trump's camp spent $150,000 on ads on the channel shortly before he won.

"There's been this new focus on 'What did we miss?' by the urban media," Gottsch said in an interview this year. He cites the fact that there simply aren't that many shows about middle America. "The television programming in the 1960s was 'Gunsmoke' and 'The Virginian' and 'Petticoat Junction' and 'Green Acres.' Not that those are great shows, but there was a connection with rural America . . . I think it's hard to connect any show with rural America anymore."

As other networks ordered pilots about red-state shows or brainstormed about rural TV ideas beyond "Duck Dynasty," RFD-TV doubled down on programming that it already knows its viewers love. In the morning, shows such as "Ag Day" and "Market Day Report" focus on the weather and markets for agricultural purposes. Daytime and evening feature equine-focused shows ("Best of America by Horseback"); music ("Mollie B Polka Party"); variety series ("Marty Stuart Show," "Larry's Country Diner"); reruns ("Hee Haw," "The Lone Ranger") and specials such as "Opry Encore," which shows concerts from the Grand Ole Opry.

In addition to its parent company launching the Cowboy Channel in July, RFD-TV recently debuted "FarmHer," which focuses on women in agriculture, as well as this month's new "Debbe Dunning's Dude Ranch Roundup," where the former "Home Improvement" actress visits dude ranches.

The shows appeal to the advertiser-coveted younger audience, but it's important for Gottsch that seniors also enjoy them. He's noticed his network is starting to get more interest from advertising agencies who want to connect with a broader demographic than just the 18-to-34-year old group.

One recent point of pride was last fall, when RFD-TVwas included in AT&T's DirecTV Now line-up. "RFD-TV was in the basic package - with ESPN, Disney, CNN, Fox News, MTV and USA and everything else, which makes us real proud," Gottsch said. "I think it's a reflection that programming devoted to rural content and senior citizens does have a place going forward in media."

RFD-TV's news operation has a Washington bureau, and Gottsch is a frequent presence in the city, particularly during hearings for cable company mergers. Recently, it was announced that RFD-TV will be available in the U.S. House of Representatives for members' offices. The network also showed up at the inauguration parade with a "rural tractor brigade" down Pennsylvania Avenue to represent farmers and ranchers.

In January 2016, when Verizon dropped RFD-TV, a spokesman said that "content costs have increased significantly in recent years, and in order to prevent all of those costs from being reflected on customers' bills, it is sometimes necessary to remove channels from our lineup."

But as the past year has shown, RFD-TV has found new energy, with programs that other networks may have overlooked.

"The coolest emails I get now are from people that are watching 'Hee Haw' with their 10-year-old or 14-year-old sons and daughters," Gottsch said. "They say, 'It's family viewing again' . . . a whole new group of folks are discovering this programming."

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