Executives at the Jewish Television Network nurtured a dream for 25 years, but it finally became reality on May 21 when the network launched on 10 channels. Granted, the channels are on its Web site and not television, but still the dream is realized.
JTN Productions, a non-profit TV production firm based in Sherman Oaks, survived for years as a source of Jewish-themed programming. Most of the programs appeared on PBS affiliates in the large Jewish markets around the country.
"There was always the thought of starting a quote-unquote Jewish television network," said Jay Sanderson, chief executive officer of JTN. "We believed the programming had universal appeal, so creating a network was intuitive for us. But it was economically out of our ballpark."
From time to time the company experimented with network status, and achieved cable carriage deals in Florida, Los Angeles and New York. But the costs and complexities of a startup cable channel still dwarfed the company's resources.
"We had given up in terms of starting a network, and then broadband came along," said Jeff Sagansky, the former president of CBS Entertainment who serves as co-chairman of JTN. "Suddenly, everyone can have a network, and they can do it at a fraction of the cost. This has been a liberating technology."
However, JTN must share its new media frontier with competitors. Sherman Oaks is home to another Semitic-themed channel called Jewish Life TV. The competing channel is headed by Phil Blazer, producer and host of the weekly show "Jewish Life" on KSCI-TV (Channel 18), but it broadcasts on cable rather than the Internet.
"Since we started, a hundred people have gotten newspaper articles written about them saying they are creating a Jewish TV network. Zero have succeeded," said Sanderson. "Phil Blazer is another of these individuals." Blazer was in Europe and couldn't be reached for comment.
Sanderson estimates a traditional cable channel would have consumed $50 million for launch, compared to the current site, www.jewishtvnetwork.com, which will carry a final price tag of around $500,000.
JTN has a few steps up on any competitor in the Jewish TV space. Its library of 700 hours of programming runs the spectrum from children's animation to Dr. Ruth's sex talks. It has interviews with comedians from Milton Berle to Howie Mandel, advice from famous Rabbi Irwin Kula, and video blogs from journalists. Even its film library stretches from student shorts to historical documentaries all with a Jewish sensibility.
Sanderson says much of this documentary content works perfectly on the Web. One of its PBS successes came from "New Jewish Cuisine," a gourmet cooking show based on the kosher diet. For its new broadband cooking channel, a little editing can convert an episode into several brief segments, each covering the preparation of one dish. The shortened versions deliver value within the limits of the quick-attention Web culture, while true kosher connoisseurs can watch episodes in their entirety.
JTN will augment its own grab bag of programming with new material from other sources, and eventually, original content. The network has plans to stream live daily newscasts from the Israel Broadcasting Authority. In conjunction with its launch, the network announced a partnership with popular dating site J-Date to provide programming for its Singles Channel.
The network's 10 channels organize the material for viewers as well as provide a clear demographic for advertisers. However, the network hasn't approached any potential sponsors yet. Its huge backlog of content allows it to build traffic and generate user data before asking for money.
"Since we are incubating this business ourselves, we have the luxury of showing proof of concept," Sanderson explained. "The Jewish consumer is highly accessible and very desirable for advertisers. But it's still a numbers game, and we want to make the most compelling case for advertisers."
He declined to set any numerical milestones for page-views at the site.
The site will generate profits through a combination of advertising, subscription fees for premium programming, paid downloads, and partnerships with other Web sites to sell products and services. "We plan on making money, but we're going to put it right back into programming both for television as well as online," Sagansky said. "All the money we will reinvest in content because in the end, that's the mandate of this organization."
Indeed, JTN's mission emphasizes TV programs that celebrate Jewish culture while reaching "the broadest possible audience of all ages and all backgrounds." The goal of finding a universal audience for Judaic themes fits nicely with the JTN business strategy.
Sanderson wants to get beyond kosher food producers and Israel travel packagers to go after mainstream advertisers. In particular, he anticipates interest from the entertainment, packaged goods and upscale automotive sectors. "This is going to sound strange, but we want to be Jewish but not too Jewish," he joked.
While the advent of broadband made a Jewish network feasible, it also creates huge competition for both viewers and ad dollars. The low cost of entry means every video library now has a potential new life online.
"Everybody and their brother is putting something on the Internet, but no one knows if it will attract viewers. That's the question," said Jon Lafayette, senior editor at trade paper Television Week. "The advertising will follow the eyeballs, so if they can attract viewers, they will get ads."
As for the network's niche strategy, Lafayette said that some cable systems now feature programming for "every conceivable ethnic group, so there may be some business there" for Jewish television.
In the long term, the network's goal of universality may undermine its relevance to its core audience. Research shows that as American Jews have assimilated into the mainstream culture, they have weakened their connection to the Jewish religion, culture and people.
A survey by the City University of New York estimated that the number of people who consider themselves Jewish in the United States had declined from 5.5 million people in 1990 to 5.3 million in 2001. Likewise, intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews has become the norm, according to the National Jewish Population Survey. A 1998 Los Angeles Times poll found that only 21 percent of Jewish singles said they would only marry within the faith.
But Sanderson remains determined to become a relevant part of the future, when TVs talk to computers and the dream of 500 channels also becomes reality. And the loss of Jewish identity doesn't worry him.
"It's really the main motivation why we exist," said Sanderson. "Part of the challenge faced by any group is connecting with its members, and by taking Jewish content into homes, we have a better chance of connecting with them."
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