Q&A with Rebecca Honig Friedman

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Meet TJC’s Manager of Original Programming, who also happens to be senior writer for Jewess and an old friend of 614.

by Michelle Cove

She is the senior writer for Jewess. She writes for the Lilith blog. Back in 2007, she contributed an essay called “The Egg Matchmaker” to 614. And now journalist Rebecca Honig Friedman is Manager of Original Programming and New Media at The Jewish Channel (TJC). Below is the interview we did with Rebecca in which she tells us, among other things, about her connection to Texas Hold’em, getting soundbites from rabbis, and why HBO is her biggest competition.

Tell us how you became involved in original programming for TJC.

Well, it happened, as most good things do, through a slew of coincidences. I’d worked for several years in documentary film and television production, working mostly on high-minded television documentaries, but I also did a stint in TV commercials and even a short-lived celeb-reality show called Hip Hop Hold’Em, in which celebrities from the hip-hop world played Texas Hold’em to raise money for charity.

That was an interesting and fun experience but had very little to do with my real interests. So after “the Hold’em,” as we called it, I decided to take a break and focus on writing, which was my first interest before production, and writing about something I cared about. That’s how the Jewess blog was born. My work on Jewess, combined with my production background, caught the attention of The Jewish Channel, which was gearing up for launch. It was a good fit.

Who exactly is your demographic and how do you decide what kind of programming to show? What’s the process for choosing?

We think of our demographic as including all Jews who own a television set. We aim to reach anyone interested in Jewish culture, history, current events, or Israel. And a lot of our movies are appealing to a general audience. (As one cable executive said when he was first shown some of our content, these are movies for “normal people,” not just Jews.)

As such, we try to choose a wide range of programming that will appeal to a variety of different types of people, from different denominations and affiliations and different levels of Jewish education. We have everything from romantic comedies to current events to serious documentaries about the Holocaust.

And the criteria?

First, is the quality good? Would we want to watch this? Is this going to make people think, or make them laugh, and is it balanced? We’re not afraid to tackle controversial subjects but we try not to present any films or shows that have a political or religious agenda without presenting a counterweight from the other perspective.

What percentage of programming is original versus licensed films?

At this point, the majority of our programming consists of feature films and documentaries that we’ve licensed from independent filmmakers, as well as more well known studio films like Exodus and Yentl, for example.

Most of the movies we show, you really can’t see anywhere else. There’s a wealth of amazing material out there that has gone largely unseen because, until now, there hasn’t been anywhere to see it, aside from the occasional Jewish film festival screening and the occasional PBS broadcast. There are hundreds of hours of great documentaries that never had a chance to make it to broadcast until now. And there are hundreds of great Israeli feature films that you don’t get to see in America. You can’t even find any more than 10 percent of our programming on Netflix.

A smaller, but growing, percentage of our programming consists of original series that we produce in-house. We have Rabbis Roundtable, where leading rabbis of different denominations discuss and debate hot-button issues facing the Jewish community, and we’ve been doing several shows with the Forward newspaper: The Forward Forum, a roundtable with their writers and editors; Inside the Issues, an in-depth interview show with editorial director J.J. Goldberg; and TJC Movie Talk, which offers insight and fun commentary on the movies we’re showing.

What’s been the biggest challenge with handling original programming?

Honestly, the biggest problem has been that we have too many ideas and not enough time to execute them. Our competition for viewers, really, is HBO and the networks because that’s what the Jewish audience is watching when they’re not watching us, and so we’ve got to set our bar very high. But we’ve actually been faster with turnaround time from idea to execution than most other channels.

How did you come up with the idea for Rabbis Roundtable and can you explain how it works?

The idea for Rabbis Roundtable initially came from one of my colleagues. The concept was, how many times do you get to hear rabbis of different denominations actually talking to each other about things that matter to regular people? Not very often. But Rabbis Roundtable does that every month. We bring together rabbis from different denominations and perspectives, and each episode they discuss four topics drawn from the latest buzz in the Jewish community and world events.

How the heck do you get that many rabbis to STOP talking?

The first time we shot it, it was a little hard to get across the concept of 45-second soundbites. Rabbis do tend to sermonize, as we all know. But once everyone got warmed up and stopped being so polite, the conversation started flowing naturally. If anyone talks for too long, chances are, one of the other panelists will cut them off, but in a nice way.

What kind of original programming would you like to eventually add to TJC?

I would love to do some programming that caters more specifically to women. There’s been talk of a Jewish View type show for starters. Jewess the talk show, maybe. I’d also really like to do some music and arts programming, showcasing up-and-coming Jewish musicians. Comedy would be great, too.

When you are brainstorming ideas, do you have to think in terms of denominational issues at all?

It’s always challenging to do any kind of Jewish programming that’s nondenominational or cross-denominational. How do you engage people across those borders but also not alienate anyone? It’s a little easier for us because our programming isn’t “religious,” it’s cultural, so we’re dealing with issues and themes that apply to most Jews.

When we do tackle subjects that deal with a particular denomination, we try to do it respectfully and from different angles. For example, we’ve discussed the raid on illegal workers at the Hasidic-owned Rubashkin’s kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa—the way the fallout from that incident has spurred the Conservative movement to innovate its own distinct certification for businesses that take into account social justice issues as well as the technical laws of kashrut. We try to approach everything from the point of view that Jews are Jews, no matter their denominational affiliation. We’re all connected and can all learn from each other.

What’s been your favorite program since you started and why?

Well, probably my most favorite is a High Holidays-themed program that is in production as I write this (it should be available on the channel when this is published). We got a whole bunch of prominent people—from musician Lisa Loeb to Blu Greenberg, the founder of JOFA—to share their best and worst High Holiday experiences, and it’s turning out to be really funny, and thoughtful, as well.

Probably the most shocking item we’ve done was a web piece covering the 100th anniversary of New York’s famous Barney Greengrass restaurant and appetizing store. Alec Baldwin showed up unexpectedly and confessed that he dated a Jewish woman in college, but her dying grandmother made her break up with him.

About the Author

Michelle Cove, Editor-in-Chief of 614: The HBI eZine
Michelle Cove has been writing and editing for national magazines and websites for over 15 years, and co-authored the national bestseller I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!: A new understanding of mother-daughter conflict (Viking, 1999). She is currently working on her upcoming documentary, Seeking Happily Ever After, about why there are more single 30-something women in the US than ever and whether women are redefining happily ever after.

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