Can Russia pull off Jewish TV for the masses?

Russian entrepreneurs are attempting to fight the influence of Al Jazeera with Jewish programming. But where are the investors?

NIKOLAI AMERIDZE 224 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Russian Jewish entrepreneur and politician Vladimir Slutzker has a message for Al Jazeera viewers: Watch out. Or, perhaps more accurately, watch my channel. Slutzker is one of several Russian Jewish entrepreneurs trying to create a Jewish TV channel, thus far with limited success. Slutzker's model, a Russian-based, English-language worldwide TV channel would counterbalance the Qatar-based, Muslim-sponsored Al Jazeera with world news from a Jewish perspective. Whether Slutzker or any of the other Jewish TV promoters have any chance of succeeding is another matter. In one effort, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia and the CIS considered a $1 million plan for the pilot stage of a project to connect the Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union via communication satellites. The plan, which involved tying together participating synagogues and Jewish institutions via a TV-Intranet combination that would allow participants to hold video conferences, also included airing daily Jewish news broadcasts and Jewish films. Nothing has come of it to date, according to a source in the satellite's operating company. The Jewish TV phenomenon is new to Russia. There are several Jewish TV stations around the world, most of them in the United States - not counting the major networks, of course. Global Jewish TV, which has been broadcasting from New York since 2005, is chaired by another entrepreneur from the former Soviet Union, Badri Patarkatsishwili, founder of the Imedi TV company in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Neither those projects nor other Jewish TV efforts - including the 24-hour Jewish Life channel, based in California, and the US digital cable channel JTV - have demonstrated any significant success in chipping away at Al Jazeera's viewership, to say nothing of viewers of other channels. "A Jewish television network is a niche project by definition," London University professor Adrian Monc said. "A project of worldwide scope can well consume at least $40 million to $60 million annually, and I'm afraid it won't show a return." This may be more than even a successful businessman like Slutzker can afford. Slutzker insists no Jewish businessman he has asked to invest in the project has turned him down, but Slutzker's refusal to elaborate or say how much money he has raised suggests the TV project may not be serious. "This is a sure sign the project might be a lot of hot air," said Mikhail Savin, press officer for the Russian Jewish Congress. "Any startup of this kind would be highly expensive, especially on an international scale." What Slutzker does have, however, is influence. He has been a member of Russia's Federation Council, Parliament's upper chamber, since 2002, and for a brief period three years ago he also chaired the Russian Jewish Congress. Slutzker is now deputy chairman of the Russian Federation Council's committee for religious groups and ethnic policy. Nikolai Amiridze, a former producer of Russian state TV's Channel One, has firsthand knowledge of how difficult it is to launch a new TV station. He is director general of the as-yet-unlaunched Shalom TV, another proposed Jewish channel from Russia. Nikolai, 65, who also goes by the name Amir Alperstein, met with JTA in the tiny office he rents in a Jewish kindergarten in downtown Moscow. "We signed an agreement with a TV production agency which provides us with everything from an on-air studio to personnel to a creative team," he said, pulling out a folder thick with official-looking papers. "We've got an agreement with a communication company that rents us a satellite covering all Eurasia, including Israel." Amiridze calculates his project will cost $2 million per year. He plans for 350,000 subscribers and says he hopes to buy satellite dishes after Shalom begins its four hours of daily broadcasting. By charging $200 per minute for advertising, he says he can generate an annual return of $4 million. Despite this business plan, no one has invested in Shalom TV. "I contacted [Russian-Israeli diamond magnate Lev] Leviev's people, Slutzker's people, media businesses in Israel - all in vain," Amiridze sighs. "Some of them agree the project is promising, but that's it. Others see me as a competitor, although I only care about the Jewish good, not about making money." Slutzker, who faces similar obstacles, says his ultimate goal, too, is to help the Jewish people. "In Russia now, unlike in Soviet times, it is quite easy to be a Jew, despite widespread anti-Semitism at the grass-roots level," Slutzker said. The real problem is Jewish communities themselves are divided, and they desperately need to create a common information space. "Television is the most powerful medium, and I hope to use it to create a mixture of religious, cultural, historical and other opinions on Jewish life that will unite, not divide, our people." (JTA)