RFD-TV President Patrick Gottsch got a call late last spring that Joe Ricketts wanted to come meet him in Gottsch's Omaha office.
Ricketts didn't want to talk about any of the topics he is best known for, like online brokerage TD Ameritrade, which he founded in Omaha, or the Chicago Cubs, which his family owns, or even politics, where he's been active as the founder of a conservative political action committee.
No, Ricketts wanted to talk about horses, specifically about his passion for draft horses, the tall, muscular animals originally bred for farm labor. The billionaire Ricketts fell in love with the powerful animals at a Denver Stock Show competition several years ago and now owns and breeds his own team at his Wyoming ranch.
Draft horses deserve their own television show, Ricketts told Gottsch.
Gottsch agreed, saying he'd had a number of emails from viewers over the years asking, “Why doesn't RFD do a show on draft horses?”
Before long, Gottsch's network was filming “Gentle Giants,” a weekly half-hour show exploring every aspect of the draft horse industry, with Ricketts as executive producer.
“It just clicked,” Gottsch said.
A team of Ricketts' draft horses, of the Percheron breed, will help promote the new show when they appear in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., clip-clopping just ahead of RFD-TV's classic-tractor-themed float in the last half-hour of the two-hour parade, which begins airing at 10 a.m. on New Year's Day.
“Gentle Giants” will premiere on RFD-TV at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6. The regular broadcast time will be at 6:30 p.m. Mondays starting Jan. 7, with reruns at 8:30 a.m. Tuesdays and 4 p.m. Sundays. Gottsch said the first 10 episodes are complete, and work has been done on a total of 26 episodes.
“We're really proud of the series, the way it's turned out,” Gottsch said. “I don't think it's going to matter if you're a horse lover or not.”
Episodes feature the Calgary Stampede, the Nebraska State Fair, the Texas Draft Horse & Mule Show and the Budweiser Clydesdales. The first episode was filmed at Ricketts' ranch.
Gottsch said the show will complement the network's other agriculture and rural lifestyle programming.
“We've got a large audience that just loves horses no matter what the story is,” he said.
The network is expanding, having launched its second channel, RURAL TV, in February, and acquiring basic cable channel FamilyNet in September. Total distribution for the three channels is 61 million homes.
For the parade, new CEO Randy Bernard, hired in early December, and other members of its growing management team will appear alongside Gottsch on the tractor float.
The network will have its own contingent of parade fans — for the first time, Gottsch said, the network is flying all its Omaha and Nashville staff and their guests, 162 people, to Pasadena on a chartered 737. They'll decorate the float and then be seated together in bleachers along the parade route.
The only thing missing, he said, will be the Huskers. Wisconsin will play Stanford in Pasadena, while Nebraska will face Georgia in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
Two other coming broadcasts will feature Ricketts' horses: An hourlong special, broadcast at 9 a.m. immediately before the New Year's Day parade, about the making of the parade floats; and live coverage at 2 p.m. Saturday of the team's appearance at Equestfest, the showcase in Burbank, Calif., of all the horses that appear in the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Ricketts, a Nebraska City native, and Gottsch, of the Elkhorn area, had never met before. Gottsch said meeting interesting people is one of his favorite things about operating the cable channel.
The men share a “love of rural America and tradition and family,” Gottsch said. “Otherwise, I never would have met Joe in a million years.”
Ricketts, in a recent blog post on his website, said it has been “one of the great joys” in his life to assemble his herd of Percheron mares at his Jackson Fork Ranch at Bondurant, Wyo., where he also operates a guest lodge.
“These are truly glorious animals,” he said.
The team twice won the Calgary Stampede's World Champion Six Horse Hitch Competition. The mares' competition schedule is slower this year because a number of them are pregnant. But Ricketts will be in Pasadena to watch them in the parade, Gottsch said.
Ricketts, in his blog, wrote: “To be asked to play a part in an event as celebrated and historic as the Rose Parade is a point of tremendous pride for all of us at Jackson Fork Ranch.”
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