Shalom TV a "religious channel"? God forbid. The founders of Shalom TV, the first Jewish cable network launched in the U.S., are quick to note that religion is not what Shalom is about.

"Jews are not into religious programming and Shalom TV is not a religious channel," says Mark Golub, president and CEO of the Fort Lee, N.J.-based programmer. "The better model to think of for us is ethnic channels, which in America tend to be Latin networks and other non-English-language networks."

That Shalom TV, available only on VOD, is less about Sabbath services and more about the cultural Jewish experience is reflected in the programming mix. Golub — an ordained rabbi who prior to Shalom developed the Russian Television Network and has grown RTN to comprise 10 Russian-language networks — and his cohorts worked from the outset to develop a lineup that would appeal to the U.S.’ 6 million Jews and others interested in a Jewish lifestyle.

Shalom’s schedule includes episodes from the prestigious 92nd Street Y lecture series, movies and news shows, and children’s series like Mr. Bookstein’s Store, which Golub describes as a cross between Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. "There is no other place where a parent or grandparent can get good quality Jewish programming for children," he says.

Shalom’s target audience is 40 years and older, and its most popular genres thus far are movies (one-quarter of which are in Hebrew with English subtitles), educational shows such as Kabbalah Revealed and From the Aleph Bet, a Hebrew studies program Golub himself hosts, and public affairs and news programming. The network produces some content in-house but is actively seeking deals like its recent pact with Sony Pictures that brought it films such as Avalon.

Comcast Says Shalom in Baltimore and D.C.

Shalom TV found an early supporter in Comcast, which launched it as a VOD network last summer in greater Philadelphia and northern Delaware for $7.99 a month (CableWorld, March 20, 2006). In a strong sign of good faith, Comcast in May expanded carriage into Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Independent operator Blue Ridge Communications offers Shalom in the Pocono Mountains region for $6.99 a month.

Mark Masenheimer, Blue Ridge GM, says Shalom "fits a niche, and we’re pleased with where it stands right now." The network is the most "culturally specific" Blue Ridge offers, but Masenheimer anticipates adding like-positioned networks soon. "VOD makes it easy to launch channels like this, and I suspect we’re going to see more specific religious and ethnic channels pop up on the platform."

Carrying niche networks like Shalom is a boon for cable operators, he adds. "It sets us apart from satellite and definitely helps us compete."

Its programming promise aside, Shalom’s greatest appeal to cable operators is the fact that it is launching as a subscription-based VOD service. That means it not only saves operators precious bandwidth but can be a catalyst to introduce harder-to-reach demographics to the merits of digital cable.

"It’s very hard for cable companies to sacrifice space they could be using for HD to add a new channel," Golub says. "But Shalom TV is on the cutting edge of a great television experiment in America. Part of the challenge for operators is to get to their customers interested in VOD. Our viewers are primarily 40 and up, and we will help introduce these customers to the VOD world."

Masenheimer declines to offer specific usage data but notes Shalom has been "a steady performer" for Blue Ridge. The operator showcases content from the network as part of a free sample of its SVOD offerings, which also includes Anime Network and WWE and generates "substantial" traffic, he says.

These days, Golub suspects most industry attention is on Washington and Baltimore, where Comcast launched Shalom with promotional fanfare including a free two-month trial. "The marketing groups in Baltimore and Washington have been marvelous," effuses Golub, who notes every digital subscriber there received a message informing them of the free preview in their recent bill. Comcast is also working with the Jewish communities there, he says, creating display ads and other materials.

Michael Ortman, VP of programming for Comcast’s Eastern division, who Golub says was largely responsible for bringing Shalom onboard, was unavailable for comment. But it’s not a stretch to surmise that the MSO’s enthusiasm may stem in part from the fact that it serves nine of the 11 top Jewish communities in the United States. The other two major Jewish markets — greater New York and Los Angeles — are served by Cablevision and Time Warner Cable, respectively. "If Baltimore and Washington like it, I’d expect in the fall we’d roll out nationally with [Comcast]," Golub says. The network is talking with other cable operators, plus Verizon and AT&T. "All eyes are on Baltimore and Washington. It’s in the hands of the distributors now."

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