NEW YORK (JTA) — It is a strange irony: Jews have been successful in the television business — but Jewish TV, not so much.
It’s not for lack of trying. Right now, no fewer than three Jewish-focused national cable channels are trying to carve out a viable niche within the already small niche for Jewish TV.
It’s a road others have taken in the past, only to reach a dead end.
Jay Sanderson, who served for 21 years as CEO of the Jewish Television Network, knows better than most.
“There’s been dozens of attempts and dozens of failures,” said Sanderson, now the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “It’s a cycle that’s been happening for 30-plus years. People want it to happen.”
The current Jewish television channels — The Jewish Channel, Shalom TV and Jewish Life Television — have scored some successes. They all launched in the past five years.
The Jewish Channel garnered national attention twice in the last two months with news broadcasts that ended up metastasizing into international stories.
Launched in 2007 as a subscription video on-demand channel, TJC has been touted as “a Jewish film festival in your living room.” But it has been the channel’s news coverage, which makes up a small fraction of TJC’s overall programming and mostly is not original content — that has thrust the channel into the public eye.
A November news report on an Israeli government-sponsored ad campaign urging Israeli expatriates in the United States to return home sparked an uproar in the United States, with many suggesting that the ads were dismissive of American Judaism. The Israeli government ultimately apologized and ended the campaign.
And in December, TJC landed a sit-down interview with Newt Gingrich in which the Republican presidential candidate suggested that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Gingrich’s remarks drew headlines and criticism from GOP rivals, including Mitt Romney.
Steven I. Weiss, the director of original programming and new media at TJC as well as its news anchor, credited the channel’s success to “hard work and good luck, and doing the hard work until you get lucky.”
While TJC officials describe their channel as a Jewish HBO, Shalom TV — a free on-demand channel launched in 2006 — describes itself as a Jewish version of C-SPAN and PBS. Shalom TV features educational programming, including Hebrew lessons, as well as videos of Jewish events, lectures, debates and speeches.
This month, the network will begin operating as a linear cable channel, with programming throughout the day, according to Mark Golub, Shalom TV’s founder and CEO. Golub said that five small cable systems across the country will carry the linear channel initially, while three larger cable systems have committed to picking it up once it is up and running. The programming also will be streamed online.
Jewish Life Television, which launched in 2007, already is operating as a 24/7 linear channel. It airs a variety of programming, from music videos and cooking shows to religious services and entertainment news. JLTV appears on cable systems across the country, and recently joined DIRECTV to be broadcast in all 50 states. In December, JLTV broadcast and streamed online President Obama’s speech at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference.
Officials at all three channels say there are distinct challenges in creating a television network aimed at a broader American Jewish audience.
“If you’re reaching Russian, Chinese audiences, you can rely on language barrier to make people have to watch your material,” TJC’s Weiss said. “With the Jewish audience, everyone speaks English.”
Golub said it was an uphill fight to sell cable companies on Shalom TV and the concept of a Jewish channel.
“No one had ever been able to convince a major cable system to launch a Jewish network. There was every kind of ethnic, Haitian, Russian, Spanish television. There was Christian, but no Jewish,” Golub said. “No cable system would say that we’re going to devote server space to feature a Jewish channel in its own lineup of channels alongside MSNBC, the Cooking Channel. We convinced them.”
In addition to Shalom TV, Golub is president of the Russian Media Group, which produces two of its own Russian-language channels and also distributes a package of satellite channels aimed at Russian speakers. Golub is a co-creator of the company’s flagship Russian Television Network of America, a 20-year-old cable and satellite channel that targets immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom are Jewish.
Representatives of all three English-language channels cast their projects not as luxuries but as necessities in the Jewish community.
“If the Jewish culture was not a rich culture, you could say there’s no place for Jewish television,” Weiss said. “But in a community that produces as many cultural pieces as we produce, as much fascinating political news discussion and as much fascination with Israel — that culture needs a TV channel, it wants a TV channel and it deserves one.”
Weiss told JTA that TJC has 50,000 subscribers who pay $5 to $7 a month. He said the channel expects to begin turning a profit sometime this year.
Phil Blazer, the founder of JLTV, says his channel’s audience has grown on DIRECTV to nearly 2 million households monthly. Based on that figure, he estimates that an additional 1 million viewers are watching on other cable affiliates. Blazer attributed the relatively large viewership to the channel’s appeal to Christian audiences interested in Judaism and Jewish culture.
Shalom TV says that its on-demand programming is accessed by 40,000 to 50,000 households monthly.
Shalom TV says it tracks audience using the media organization RenTrak; JLTV uses Kantar Media. TJC declined to say how it tracks its numbers.
None of the channels provided original tracking documents, and JTA was unable to independently verify their viewership claims.
Blazer says that JLTV, which is a for-profit company, generated $2 million in gross advertising revenue in 2010. He also is the president of the Jewish Life Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supplies some of JLTV’s original content. According to IRS filings, Blazer draws no pay from the foundation. Blazer told JTA that he also does not receive a salary from the channel itself.
Golub, Shalom TV’s CEO, also does not receive a salary, according to the channel’s IRS filings. The channel, Golub added, is a nonprofit that has been funded by him and his brother to the tune of “seven figures” over the past four years. Shalom TV raises additional funds through outside donations and by selling DVDs of its programming. Golub said he is starting to seek additional funding.
“We wanted to prove that a Jewish television network was viable and could have an impact before we talked to the foundations about funding,” Golub said.
Sanderson, however, was less optimistic.
“I’m sure some of the programming has redeeming value,” he said. “The question is — is it worth the cost and will it succeed and will it make an impact and will it penetrate the Jewish American community in ways that are successful? I think history doesn’t lie in this particular world.”