Will the streaming wars destroy the golden age of Jewish TV?

Streaming TV providers like Netflix and HBO are downsizing their libraries, including niche, Jewish content.


Are the streaming wars going to kill off Jewish TV? Courtesy of YES Studios

By Mira Fox, The Forward

For years, the streaming giants — Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Apple TV+, the many other ones that have popped up — have been locked in a battle to win eyes and subscription dollars. They’ve bought up catalogs of classic movies and TV shows, expanded their international offerings and churned out original shows and movies, resulting in a glut of quality content. (Even if there’s also been a glut of crap.) 

It’s all been great for us, the viewers — and especially good for those in minority groups. In the past few years, American Jews have gotten to watch a plethora of Israeli TV shows, and a bunch of original Jewish content. Five years ago, these shows might have been too niche, but in the streaming wars, companies were hungry for the chance to capture another loyal audience sector. 

Except it turns out that, like many tech startups, the streaming giants haven’t figured out how to actually, well, make money — and now, the bubble has burst. Which means they’re all liquidating those diverse catalogs to save money on licensing. And one of the most beloved Jewish shows is already slated to be among the first to go.

Shtisel, an Israeli show about a Haredi family in Jerusalem, did so well on Netflix that the company renewed it for a third season, resurrecting it years after the show had been canceled in Israel. Yet now, all three seasons of Shtisel are leaving Netflix on March 25, without another streaming host in the U.S. What’s going to leave next?

The birth of the streaming wars

Before streaming services, TV made money by selling ads; the more popular the program airing, the more money the ad cost. That meant that shows needed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible so channels could sell their advertisers on the promise of millions of eyeballs, which meant, in practice, shows — especially those on network TV — weren’t that edgy or diverse to avoid putting off the mainstream audiences.

But most streaming services didn’t have ads. (Though several companies, including Netflix, launched ads in an attempt to bolster profits late last year, and Hulu has always had an ad-supported tier.) Instead, they make money through subscriptions. That means that the goal is no longer a wildly popular show but instead a range of shows that will create an audience loyal to their service. 

Since the streaming sites are able to serve content directly to viewers via algorithms that predict what each user might like, they’re able to surface specific content to people who will be most excited to see it. This frees them, at least in theory, from the market forces of box office revenue and primetime ratings, enabling them to have shows with more LGBTQ representation, more religious and ethnic diversity and more foreign languages.

Streaming dollars

Before the dominance of streaming, shows that were successful in other countries’ markets were remade for American television, since viewers were more likely to gravitate to a story in their native language and country. Think In Treatment, a 2008 remake of the Israeli BeTipul, or Homeland, which was originally an Israeli show called Prisoners of War.

But remaking an entire series from scratch is expensive; licensing it for international distribution usually costs far less than a cast, a crew, writers, a set and so on. Which is how we ended up with shows in Hebrew, like Fauda and Shtisel on Netflix, which has led the charge on international offerings, as well as On the Spectrum and Valley of Tears on HBO Max. And when streaming companies did make original content, they were willing to take on more experimental, less commercially dependable projects — like Netflix’s wildly popular miniseries Unorthodox.

For years, Netflix seemed to be operating with the strategy: Try it all and see what sticks, a strategy valuing quantity at a level that more than canceled out whatever savings they might have had from licensing other shows. And since Netflix was the industry leader, other streamers largely followed suit.

But many of the streaming services were operating off of debt; like many tech businesses, investors were hoping the business would eventually become profitable. When the pandemic bubble burst and people started going outside again, the companies lost users and their stock plummeted. The competition didn’t help. It’s one thing to lure in users to a streaming service with the promise of niche shows and a deep library all in one place, for one monthly fee, but when there are many options, all with well-reviewed shows, the fees start to add up and users start getting pickier about which services are worth their money.

What does it all mean for the Jews?

As a result of the industry downturn, and a drop in users, most of the services are canceling shows left and right in an attempt to save money and appease nervous investors. 

Netflix canceled production on original shows like Warrior Nun and the animated series Inside Job, and dropped dozens of others they had licensed out of their library. Meanwhile, other platforms, like HBO Max, are not only removing swaths of their licensed library — they’re also axing some of their successful original content in an attempt to save money in residual payments to creators. HBO Max has even taken some of its most popular franchises, such as Westworld, off of the site in order to make a profit licensing the show to other, ad-supported sites. Other original content HBO has taken down hasn’t even found a new home — meaning you can’t watch it anywhere (legally).

This does not bode well for the smaller, niche shows. If major successes like Westworld don’t even have staying power, shows with smaller audiences — and Jews make up only about 2.4% of the American population — are likely on the chopping block.

Shtisel isn’t necessarily representative of all the Jewish shows on American streaming services. It’s a slow show that can be hard to get into — there are no big scandals to draw intrigue. Plus, like many Israeli shows, it assumes the audience is familiar with Judaism and Orthodox customs and does little to explain Haredi life to non-Jewish viewers.

But the narrowing of streaming content almost certainly means less space for the kind of nuanced, deep exploration that niche shows could achieve. The flattening of the streaming landscape may end up being profitable financially, but paltry creatively.

On the other hand, in a New Yorker profile, Netflix’s head of television programming, Bela Bejaria, said the streaming giant is leaning into creating international originals, like the Korean hit Squid Game. Maybe Bejaria will turn her attention to Israel next.

This article was originally published on the Forward.