Will new Jewish TV Channel (TJC) click with viewers?

The Jewish Channel (TJC), an ambitious enterprise that, depending on who\'s talking, is either the new Jewish HBO or the latest tawdry entry in a long series of failed attempts to create one
August 14, 2008

From JTC’s YouTube site:
Get the inside scoop on The Jewish Channel’s award-winning features and documentaries. The Forward newspaper’s Arts and Culture Editor Alana Newhouse is your guide, offering incisive interviews with writers, directors and cultural critics.Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Abigail Pogrebin, author of “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.” Newhouse and Pogrebin discuss the legacy of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, the subject of Louis B. Mayer: King of Hollywood, on contemporary Hollywood’s Jewish celebrities — like Natalie Portman and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Bandwidth in Los Angeles recently took an upward leap of faith.

In addition to the usual news, drama and sports, viewers of cable’s Verizon FiOS TV (Fiber-Optic Television) can now also watch a panel of rabbis discussing Barack Obama’s minister, hear actor Alec Baldwin rave about New York delis or listen to a converted Orthodox comedian rant about his three ritual circumcisions.

It’s all on The Jewish Channel (TJC), an ambitious enterprise that, depending on who’s talking, is either the new Jewish HBO or the latest tawdry entry in a long series of failed attempts to create one. At the very least, the new channel’s arrival in this media-savvy town has heated up a simmering debate over whether true national Jewish television is possible and, if so, whose is most likely to succeed.

“There have easily been 25 or 30 significant efforts that have failed in the last 20 years and all for the same reason,” said Jay Sanderson, CEO of the Sherman Oaks-based Jewish Television Network, which, though still producing content for PBS, long ago abandoned cable television in favor of Web TV.

“The problem,” Sanderson said, “is that none of them have made money.”

Professional media critics tend to agree.

“Any niche-oriented station divided by religion, gender, age range, etc., is starting from a place where it’s limiting its potential audience,” said Brian Lowry, a media columnist and chief TV critic for Variety Magazine. “The issue is capacity; cable operators don’t generally want to give up space to a channel unless they think it will make money.”

While inexpensive programming in any niche is potentially viable, Lowry said, “I don’t see a huge demand for it. The Jewish audience falls into the same category as any other; a portion will reach out for ethnic-based programs, but the lion’s share will watch what everybody else is watching. It comes down to how narrowly you can keep slicing up that pie and still be economically viable.”

Steven Weiss, an executive and spokesman for TJC, is hoping that his slice of the pie will be large. Launched on the East Coast last year with private funding from venture capitalists, the station a video-on-demand compendium of Jewish movies, commentary and public affairs programming billing itself as “America’s first national Jewish cable network” now boasts about 20,000 viewers. Though it’s still too early to tell, Weiss hastened to add, how many of them live in Los Angeles.

His secret, he said, is quality programming provided by a staff of seasoned industry executives with backgrounds at major cable networks and media companies, including Showtime, The Food Network, Rainbow and Time Warner.

“We’re getting an overwhelming response from people who really appreciate that they can connect with their culture and community from the comfort of their living rooms,” he said.

Weiss believes it’s the rising phenomenon of behind-closed-doors Judaism that will allow the station to succeed.

“We’re in an era where there are many people looking for Jewish experiences but not willing to do it in a confined Jewish space,” he said. “It’s a cultural shift; people increasingly want a Jewish identity that’s in flow with everything else in their lives rather than in marked contrast. The idea that you can actually bring it into your living room is a very attractive proposition for a great many unaffiliated Jews.”

Others who would appear to have less impressive television credentials than TJC’s producers have similar ideas. Among them is Phil Blazer, the Encino-based publisher of a newspaper that is distributed irregularly called The National Jewish News, president of a company called Blazer Communications and producer of a half-hour Sunday morning program that airs on the small cable station KSCI-TV, Channel 18. Now he said he plans to go national with what he calls Jewish Life TV, set to debut in Los Angeles this fall. The debut has been promised for a long period of time but has not yet produced results.

“L.A. will have its own full-time channel,” Blazer promises of the programming he said can already be seen by basic cable subscribers in a smattering of U.S. cities nationwide, including Burlington, Vt., and San Antonio, Texas. “We are a regular full-time network, not just video-on-demand.”

Blazer said that one of his goals with the new channel is “to go to small communities, like Bakersfield, where there isn’t much Jewish life.”

It’s an ambition shared by Rabbi Mark S. Golub, president of Fort Lee, N.J.-based Shalom TV, a nonprofit video-on-demand network that tested the waters for 18 months before going national earlier this year.

“What we’re doing,” Golub said of the network, available to Time Warner subscribers in Los Angeles, “is providing Jews outside the major urban centers with a greater sense of Jewish identity and Jewish security. Jewish is in the air in New York and, in some ways, in Los Angeles. But you go out of the major urban areas of this country and Jews are starving for Jewish content.”

Golub also serves as the spiritual leader of congregation Chavurat Aytz Chayim in Stamford, Conn., president of the Russian Television Network of America and producer of a weekly cable television show called, L’Chayim,

Some potential viewers in Los Angeles are already signaling whose station they prefer even while the jury’s still out. Shelley Salamensky, a professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and TV who also teaches at the university’s Center for Jewish Studies, hasn’t yet seen TJC but she’s heard all about it.

“I think it will enrich the lives of those who are connected to the Jewish community,” she said. “It will enrich the lives of those who are Jewish but unaffiliated, and for non-Jewish viewers it should also be fascinating.”

Salamensky sees the emergence of Jewish television, in general, as part of a larger trend.

“Los Angeles is a city in which many different cultures have had a presence on TV for years,” she said, “but I think this is quite new for Jews. There is evidence of renewed Jewish life in the 21st century; a strong movement of people who have been disenfranchised returning to their roots.”

The professor attributes the phenomenon, in part, to the “feeling of spiritual emptiness and disconnection” engendered by the post-modern world.

“My grandparents’ generation from Eastern Europe is passing away,” she said, “and we’re feeling the loss.”

The view from the bottom line, however, is that such sentiment may engender more desire than actual accomplishment. The reality, Variety media critic Lowry said, “is that most people, when they sit down to watch TV, don’t run through a litany of their personal attributes before choosing what to watch. They’re going to turn on ‘Desperate Housewives’ or ‘Lost’ or a movie or whatever.”

In fact, he concludes, the whisperings of personal religion and ethnicity “is just not something most people go through before deciding what to view.”

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