Patrick Gottsch, Champion of Rural TV Programming, Dies at 70 - The World News

Patrick Gottsch, Champion of Rural TV Programming, Dies at 70

A tractor-pulling contest in Rockwell, Iowa. “The Big Joe Polka Show.” A veterinarian discussing how to keep flies off cows. A rerun of a 1982 episode of “Hee Haw.”

Those were some of the recent offerings on RFD-TV, a 24-hour channel created by Patrick Gottsch, a satellite-dish installer who had the idea to start a network aimed at the farmers and ranchers who were his customers.

Its programing may not be the stuff of must-see television in urban and suburban America. But RFD-TV, which also carries gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Future Farmers of America convention, occupies an enduring, if narrow, niche on the television spectrum.

Mr. Gottsch, whose spinoff properties include the Cowboy Channel, the Cowgirl Channel and Rural Radio, Channel 147 on SiriusXM, died on May 18 in Fort Worth. He was 70.

His death, at a hotel in the city’s historic Stockyards district, was unexpected. His daughters Raquel Gottsch Koehler and Gatsby Gottsch Solheim said that the family was awaiting a medical examiner’s report to learn the cause, but that it was probably related to his history of diabetes.

Mr. Gottsch, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska, fought tenaciously to prove that TV programming about agriculture, horses, the rural lifestyle and traditional country music could be viable — especially in his company’s early years, when, he liked to recall, investors and media executives told him that it was a “stupid idea” or that “farmers don’t watch TV.”

“Patrick always came back to this refrain: I don’t think these media executives look out their plane windows when they’re flying from coast to coast,” Mrs. Solheim said in an interview. “He really was passionate about serving the people who grew up like he did in rural America.”

His death prompted testaments to his impact from stars of country music, rodeo and Western-themed entertainment, including Dolly Parton and the creators of the television drama “Yellowstone.”

“While ‘Yellowstone’ receives much praise for bringing rural America into the public zeitgeist, ‘Yellowstone’ stands on the shoulders of Patrick’s creation,” Taylor Sheridan, a creator of the series, said in a statement.

In the 1990s, Mr. Gottsch was a single father who couldn’t afford a babysitter, so he would pick up his daughters after school and bring them along as he installed satellite dishes.

“He’d climb up to the roof, and we’d be in the living room calling out the signal strength,” Mrs. Solheim recalled.

Mr. Gottsch first tried to get RFD-TV — he named it for the Post Office’s Rural Free Delivery service — off the ground in 1988. That attempt ended a year later in bankruptcy, because no cable service would carry it. He returned to installing satellite receivers.

But a founder of the Dish Network, Charlie Ergen, suggested that he reboot the channel as a nonprofit to take advantage of a federal law requiring satellite companies to reserve bandwidth for educational programming. The Dish Network promised him one channel.

RFD-TV was reborn in 2000, originally with almost all its programming created by third-party producers. Two years later, it expanded to DirecTV; by 2007, Mr. Gottsch had converted the operation into a for-profit company.

That year, he signed the cowboy-hatted talk radio personality Don Imus to simulcast his show on RFD-TV, after Mr. Imus was booted from MSNBC for a racist comment. The Imus deal persuaded Comcast, a cable behemoth, to pick up RFD-TV, introducing many perplexed but curious urban viewers to its live reports on commodity prices and rural weather, shows like “Cattlemen to Cattlemen,” and broadcasts of the Rose Parade in which hosts named every Budweiser Clydesdale pulling the beer wagon.

“With cowboy hosts and insider jargon, the channel offers no translations for parochial cityfolk,” Virginia Heffernan, a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, wrote in admiration. “Really, urban people should feel privileged to watch RFD-TV, like freshmen allowed to audit an upper-level seminar.”

Mr. Imus jumped ship to the Fox Business Network before the end of his RFD-TV contract. But Mr. Gottsch, who was by then on his way to being a big success with a 50-person broadcast studio in Nashville and a private plane, bought Mr. Imus’s 3,400-acre ranch in New Mexico. He also bought, at auction, the taxidermied remains of Roy Rogers’s horse Trigger and his dog Bullet. He installed them in a John Wayne museum he created with Wayne’s son Ethan in Fort Worth.

In 2017, Mr. Gottsch started the Cowboy Channel, which became the official TV home of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Showing hundreds of rodeo performances live greatly boosted the sport’s audience, brought in new sponsors and increased the payouts to cowboys. A former broadcaster on the Cowboy Channel, Jeff Medders, nicknamed Mr. Gottsch Rodeo Elvis because of the enormous popularity he gained with the sport’s fans.

Mr. Gottsch’s daughters, both of whom are executives with the company, said that RFD-TV is available in around 25 million homes, and that the Cowboy Channel is available in about 14 million.

Still, viewership is relatively small. The average number of households tuned to RFD-TV in a recent four-week period was 9,915, according to Comscore, a media tracking firm. The average household viewership of the Cowboy Channel was 4,850. (By contrast, Headline News had 101,000 average viewers, and the Golf Channel had 85,000.)

Patrick Gene Gottsch was born on June 3, 1953, in Omaha to Bernard and Gloria (Borowiak) Gottsch. His father was a full-time farmer, and his mother managed the household. He was the oldest of five surviving children who grew up on the family farm in Elkhorn, Neb., which produced corn, soybeans and cattle.

Patrick attended Sam Houston State University in Texas on a baseball scholarship but dropped out after one year because he broke his hand. He moved to Chicago in 1977 to work as a commodities broker on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

He was soon back in Nebraska, where he heard from customers after installing their satellite dishes that they loved being able to get ESPN or the Disney Channel, but wondered why there weren’t shows about their own lives on the farm.

Mr. Gottsch’s marriage to Shirley Hickey ended in divorce in 1991. He moved with their two daughters, of whom he had physical custody, to Fort Worth, where he became the director of sales for a livestock auction house. But he soon quit to try his hand yet again at the satellite dish business — and to pursue his dream of RFD-TV. Later in life, he moved back to Nebraska and bought part of his family’s original farm.

In 2017, he married Angie Good, with whom he raised a third daughter, Rose. His daughters and wife survive him, as does a brother, Mickey; three sisters, Terri Murphy, Tammy Hill and Toni Korpela; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Gottsch created the Cowgirl Channel in 2023 after his youngest daughter, while watching a rodeo, asked why barrel racers and other female rodeo performers did not get equal time on television.

At the launch of the Cowgirl Channel outside the company’s studios in the Fort Worth Stockyards, Mr. Grottsch’s older daughters demurred when asked if they wanted to speak. But Rose Grottsch, then 9, made a statement.

“Girls rule. Boys drool,” she said.

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