Cable executive's wife takes on senior issues show at 79

Posted: Tuesday, March 27, 2001

PHILADELPHIA -- Suzanne Roberts enjoyed a privileged childhood and an equally comfortable life as an executive's wife, socialite and mother of five.

But don't ask her to serve on any party planning committees. She limits her time to a few hand-selected boards. Besides, at 79, Roberts has a full-time job, albeit an unpaid one, in her husband's cable TV empire.

About a year ago, Roberts took on the challenge as host of a five-minute TV spot on senior issues called ''Seeking Solutions with Suzanne.'' The show, produced by Comcast Corp., airs three times a day during local access time provided by CNN's Headline News network.

''Suzanne is breaking new ground with the kinds of topics she deals with, and the fact she's targeting it toward what will be the largest segment of our population -- the graying of the boomers,'' Comcast spokesperson Vic Skowronski said.

True to her audience, the show addresses health topics, from a three-part look at prostate cancer to osteoarthritis to exercise.

Roberts, a longtime local actress and inveterate ham, is far from squeamish on the air. She freely discusses the steps involved in a colorectal screening and asks experts about safe sex for seniors re-entering the dating scene.

Nor is she squeamish about her age.

''I'm going to be 80 in May. I think that for the show, it's very important that they know that I'm 80, or going to be,'' Roberts said.

Other topics have ranged from financial planning to belly dancing to bereavement.

''I see so many people my age, and every one of them says, 'Don't stop working. This is one of the most exciting things, to see somebody our age on TV,''' Roberts said recently, sitting in a conference room at a production office in downtown Philadelphia.

Comcast, the nation's third-largest cable operator, reported net income of $2.02 billion on revenue of $8.22 billion last year. The booming QVC shopping network, which Comcast owns, accounted for nearly half the revenue.

Ralph J. Roberts, Suzanne's husband of 59 years, is Comcast's founder and chairman, their son Brian its president.

''Until this show, I've always, naturally, thought of Ralph and Brian as kings. Now, people who I don't know from Adam say, 'Oh hello, Suzanne,''' Roberts said.

In recent years, Roberts retired from the local stage as she found it increasingly difficult to remember her lines. She came up with the idea for the show, and pitched it to her husband. She envisioned a 10- or 15-minute production.

Ralph Roberts liked the idea, but left the decision to other company executives. They suggested the five-minute segments.

Roberts, ever blunt, said she initially questioned that strategy.

''When I first heard about it, I thought, 'What the hell can you do in five minutes?''' she said. ''But I've come around to it. You can do an awful lot in five minutes.''

The show made its debut with three new segments a week, and now airs new spots each day, at 11:55 a.m., 4:55 p.m., and 9:55 p.m.

Typically, Roberts introduces a topic, squeezes in a few questions with an expert, and signs off. About half the shows are produced in the field, and feature Roberts swimming with senior Olympians, learning tai chi, or gamely attempting some other activity.

A staff of six, all women, produce the show, which is filmed on a handsome set at a QVC facility in West Chester, a Philadelphia suburb.

The show's budget is $1.2 million a year, about what Comcast takes in from sponsors, including local hospitals and medical providers. Comcast could sell its local access time to advertisers, but instead splits it between Roberts' show and interviews with local newsmakers.

''Seeking Solutions'' reaches 8.4 million Comcast subscribers in 19 states, and airs once a day on the GoodLife TV Network.

Roberts spends four days a week preparing and taping the show.

Ralph Roberts, who is 80, also works four days a week. The couple stay in a Center City hotel during the week, then spend long weekends in Chester County at their 150-acre horse farm, complete with an 18th century farmhouse once featured in Architec-tural Digest.

''I recommend you do something you love, or find something. I don't know how you necessarily find something, but it's wonderful if you can,'' Roberts said.

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