September 30, 2004
Jewish TV Channel?
Imagine a reality television show featuring scantily clad women and nice Jewish boys, a cross between "elimiDATE" and "The Man Show." "Nice Jewish Boyz" would aim to smash the myth of the overmothered Jewish male. It would be racy.
Imagine, along with that, political shows called "Two Jews, Three Opinions" and "Jewishly Incorrect." Also in the lineup would be "Genesis 9:0," a biblical quiz show; Jewish televangelism, hosted by a hip, Gen-X rabbi; music videos with a Mediterranean flair, and news from Israel and around the world.
All this conjecture would constitute the first national Jewish television channel -- if John Odoner, a real estate attorney in New York, has his way. Odoner has spent the past two years developing plans for a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week Jewish digital cable channel, JTV.
In the compartmentalized world that is cable television -- with special channels for animal lovers, science fiction fans and game show groupies -- a television network entirely about Jews might not be far-fetched. But the question is, can it succeed?
"As Jews have a place among the nations, we have a place among the networks," Odoner said.
As the CEO of JTV, he plans for the channel to offer a mix of news and entertainment. Non-Jews would comprise half the target audience. Evangelical Christians have already expressed strong interest in the channel, Odoner said.
Odoner has accumulated an advisory council with intellectual heft. The board includes, to name a few, Sid Zion, author and New York Daily News columnist; Ruth Wisse, a Harvard University literature professor; and Edward Alexander, a University of Washington English professor. Odoner said investors can count on his having the "gravitas, intellectually, to pull this off."
When Odoner called Zion about the network, Zion thought it was a great idea. "Jews have been here for 350 years, and we don't have our own station," he said. He may host a weekly interview show, "Sid Zion Live."
Wisse said she had not heard anything about "Nice Jewish Boyz."
"The question is whether it [JTV] can maintain its serious standards of excellence while becoming commercially viable," she said.
Alexander said he was not familiar with the particulars of the company.
Despite the conservative views of some of his advisers, Odoner insisted that the channel will exemplify political and intellectual diversity.
"We're not going to be the Ariel Sharon network, the Ehud Barak network, the Bush network or the Kerry network," he said. "We're going to be an independent voice. On domestic issues, we're not going to be right wing."
"But," he added, "on international issues, we realize these are serious times. With the decapitation of Danny Pearl, the rise of anti-Semitism in France and the rantings of Bin Laden, the goal posts have shifted."
JTV is "the right concept for the right time," Odoner said. The network will be "bold, accurate and unapologetic." It will offer cutting-edge Middle East reporting, he said.
The network is in the final stages of signing an agreement to simulcast ABC Radio's "John Batchelor Show." While Batchelor is not Jewish, his news show has a cult following among Jews in New York and Washington, Odoner said.
So far, JTV has not signed an agreement with any cable or satellite operator. But Odoner believes that he can strike a deal by February 2005. He plans to launch in major markets, such as Los Angeles and New York.
Odoner is not alone in the race to launch a Jewish network. Bradford Hammer, president and CEO of Shalom TV in New Jersey, has plans of his own.
For the past year, Hammer, a former senior vice president at the Pennsylvania Cable Network, has been developing an educational network that would carry news, films, religious and cultural programming.
"Jewish Library" would feature authors discussing their books. "Our People" would showcase interviews with Jewish leaders.
In "Temple Stories," rabbis would give tours of their synagogues. The channel would also broadcast Shabbat services. It would give air time to Jewish denominations across the spectrum, Hammer said.
The network would not have flashy graphics or look like MSNBC.
"I believe people are interested in content," Hammer said.
He wants to promote Jewish culture to combat the troubling trends of intermarriage and nonaffiliation, he said.
Shalom TV will target synagogue-affiliated Jews who live in Jewish areas and have digital cable. It will cater to 30- to 55-year-old viewers. In contrast, JTV will seek to attract Jews and non-Jews in the prime advertising demographic of 18-49.
JTV wants to be a basic channel that will reach the home of anyone with digital cable. The network plans to earn money through advertising, licensing fees paid by cable and satellite operators and a home shopping component.
Shalom TV wants to be a premium channel that will reach only those who subscribe to it. The company would take a percentage of subscription fees.
"This model is based on the Jewish community," Hammer said. "If the Jewish community doesn't support the network, then there shouldn't be a network."
Odoner and Hammer are not the first to attempt to launch a Jewish television channel. Jeffrey Reiss, who started Showtime and the Cable Health Network, forerunner to Lifetime, founded Mosaic TV in 1999.
Based in Denver, the company planned to rely on advertising revenues and cable operator licensing fees. But in mid-2002, the company folded.
Reiss said he raised only $1 million of the $25 million he needed. The company had a $10 million conditional pledge, dependent on its finding another $10 million investor in the cable industry. But he could find no willing supporter.
If Reiss could do it over again, he would do it differently, he said. He would launch with a video-on-demand service that would require viewers to proactively select to watch the programming.
Kaleidoscope Entertainment in Toronto received a license from the Canadian government in 2000 to operate the Gesher Channel.
Marshall Kesten, the company's CEO, thought he had a hook: deliver international news "through a Jewish prism." Kesten imagined showing Israeli news with an English voiceover or an English text-crawl on the screen.
But when he met with news executives, he said he learned that DISH Network's Israeli Network had tied up the rights to the programming. Without the Israeli news component, the channel was not viable, Kesten said.
"Jews watch 'Seinfeld,'" he said. "Jews are not a first-generation immigrant community but are acculturated. Those who aren't -- the Chasidim -- don't watch TV."
Although local broadcasters had agreed to let the Gesher Channel use their studios and equipment for free, Kesten said he could not find a financial model that would work. In his opinion, the only way a Jewish channel can succeed is through community subsidies.
The Jewish Broadcasting Network in Chicago operates on such subsidies. It is not a cable network but a nonprofit organization that airs Jewish lectures, comedy and films. Private donations fund the company, which buys air time from a local cable operator.
Mayrav Newman, executive director of the nonprofit, said Shalom TV met with her organization.
"It's a great idea, but it's also a pipe dream," she said. "Who knows if it's going to sell?"
Producing compelling programming and attracting an audience will be significant challenges, she said.
Newman's company broadcasts only half an hour a week. "And we haven't been able to expand," she said.
Suzan Berns in San Francisco has been producing two weekly, half-hour Jewish programs, "Mosaic" and "A Jewish Perspective," for 10 years. She estimates that 15,000 at most watch the low-budget productions, funded by the Jewish Community Federation.
Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN Productions in Sherman Oaks, has been producing Jewish programming for public television, including PBS, for 25 years. According to Sanderson, there is no business model that would make a Jewish cable network viable.
"Saying you're going to launch a Jewish cable network is like telling me you've cured cancer," Sanderson said. In other words, it's a nice idea, but it's unbelievable.
It can take $50 million to start a network, he said.
JTV and Shalom TV have raised funds from private individuals. Neither would disclose the amount it had in the bank, but Hammer said Shalom TV has raised one-third of the funds it needs to launch.
Shalom TV will need substantially less than $50 million, Hammer said. The company plans to keep costs down by starting with a video-on-demand service. It would allow Shalom TV to launch with a small number of subscribers.
Sanderson said it's an uphill battle to convince cable operators to carry a channel, especially for an independent company not part of an existing family of networks. Securing distribution requires having strong relationships within the industry.
Then, there's the problem of producing original programming. Simulcasting a radio show does not cut it, Sanderson said. Howard Stern's show is simulcast, but he's a major personality on a small television network, he said. Sanderson believes people have high expectations for programming, and quality programming is expensive.
That's why Odoner says she will develop four new shows and rely on six already produced ones. He plans to repeat the 10 shows once to fill up the schedule, a common industry practice. Odoner thinks his programming ideas are one of JTV's major assets.
"Others have come up with programming that's as appealing as stale latkes," he said.
Jeff Weber, president and CEO of Lightworks Producing Group, which produces religious programming for Faith & Values Media, said a Jewish channel will succeed only if it has good programming. "Will it succeed because it's related to a particular faith?" he asked. "No."
Religious-based networks exist, but many target populations larger than the Jewish community. And they often rely on nontraditional ways of making money.
EWTN, a Catholic religious network founded in 1981, generates $2.7 million each month from voluntary subscriber donations, according to Scott Hults, the channel's vice president of communications.
Despite the challenges, Odoner and Hammer are shooting for success.
"We want to represent the colors of the rainbow that are the Jewish people," Odoner said.
Hammer's optimism increased when he learned of JTV in August.
"If this were such a terrible idea, you wouldn't have all these people trying to bring it to fruition," he said.
Hammer plans to launch his cable network, "5,700 years in the making," before the end of the year.