Shalom TV Bets on VOD

While some religious networks are broadening the number of denominations that they serve, one programmer launching later this year is concentrating on a niche audience. Set to debut in August on two Comcast Corp. and Blue Ridge Communications systems, Fort Lee, N.J.-based Shalom will also focus on video-on-demand offerings to reach viewers. Shalom TV CEO Rabbi Mark Golub cites research indicating that digital cable’s penetration is higher among Jewish households compared to the rest of the U.S. population, mainly because they’re clustered in urban areas.

Shalom TV subscribers will pay a flat rate for unlimited access to 50 hours of on-demand content that’s refreshed weekly. (A linear lineup eventually may be offered.) “[Prices] are set by the local operator, but we are encouraging a $6 to $9 range, and anticipate $6.95,” said Bradford Hammer, the network’s chief operating officer. The decision to charge a fee makes Shalom TV a market barometer worth watching by proponents and opponents of per-channel pricing — a hot-button issue among religious and secular networks.

Shalom TV’s initial lineup will feature a wide variety of programs, including movies, news, documentaries, cooking shows and children’s fare. That mix should help attract Jews who are interested in more than just the religious aspects of their faith. “We are a cultural service, not a religious network, so our perspective on current and future prospects is significantly broader,” Rabbi Golub said.

No stranger to niche plays, Rabbi Golub founded the Russian Television Network of America, the country’s first full-service Russian-language channel, in 1991. Many of Shalom TV’s senior management also have experience in cable or ethnic television at companies such as Cox Communications Inc., Fox Cable Networks, Russian Media Group and the Satellite News Channel.

Rabbi Golub recently spoke with Multichannel News contributor Tim Kridel about his new network’s strategy and the challenges it faces. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: What’s behind Shalom TV’s VOD strategy? And how have cable operators responded to that choice?

Mark Golub: Our migration from linear to VOD was a product of meetings with cable operators. VOD respected bandwidth and offered traditional companies de facto cable exclusivity. The Jewish population is also technologically savvy and is among the earliest adaptors of new products.

While we continue to contemplate a Shalom TV linear offering for programmatic reasons, terrestrial operators showed a marked preference for an immediate VOD product and have anxiously provided us robust capacity.

MCN: What challenges do you face in creating and launching Shalom TV?

MG: We’ve been assisted by emerging technology, yet hindered at times in waiting for — or watching — marketplace deployment of these very same advances.

Shalom TV was conceived as a linear service, but our meetings with terrestrial operators coincided with a bandwidth crunch brought on by high-speed Internet, high-definition television and [voice-over-Internet Protocol] applications, not to mention dual carriage of broadcast networks toward an all-digital platform.

Happily, VOD evolved, and we were able to make those subscriber numbers work for the network. But not every system or operator was VOD-enabled, and some MSOs were initially cautious about plunging into subscription VOD waters. Thus, the process took longer than any of us expected.

Overall, we’ve been extraordinarily fortunate that our executive team built its reputation on responding to the needs and interests of cable operators. Many people without decades of industry experience and a subtle understanding of nascent technology would have steadfastly refused to alter their original programming model.

MCN: How will Shalom TV build its viewer base?

MG: Publicizing Shalom TV is one of the most important elements that we bring to a cable system. And as a subscription service, our livelihood depends on its success.

For us, synagogues are key. There’s a direct statistical correlation between the number and location of synagogues and the number and location of Jewish people, so these centers of community life are perfectly placed instruments for trumpeting Shalom TV news and information.

We’ve also developed outstanding relationships with some of the America’s best-known, highly organized and influential Jewish groups such as The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, Hadassah, Hillel, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish National Fund, Orthodox Union, Union for Reform Judaism, United Jewish Agency/United Jewish Communities, and others. All have agreed to help promote the network.

Additionally, we’ve traveled to Jewish markets in the United States and Canada in establishing partnerships with significant and recognizable local leaders. These ambassadors have also offered assistance in galvanizing community support.

These efforts supplement traditional media placement and a burgeoning e-mail list in disseminating Shalom TV releases and building network awareness.

MCN: Many telcos, such as Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc., are launching TV services. How does that affect Shalom TV?

MG: We’ve been very well received by these companies, and their projected service areas match up handsomely with our target market footprint.

Strategically, these providers have noted their intention to replicate [direct-broadcast satellite] offerings on the ground, bringing households niche services that may not be offered by incumbent terrestrial operators.

MCN: Does Shalom TV have a position on proposals for per-channel pricing?

MG: Our carriage agreements structure Shalom TV as a premium standalone service, with an opportunity for digital tier placement using a per-subscriber fee. So, we’ve already been active in the a la carte environment and are quite comfortable in that space.