It lasted for fifteen years in all, from 1974 to 1989. The Z Channel really took off when Jerry Harvey was hired as program director in 1980. For the next nine years, Z was the best place to study the art of the cinema, from the silents to the present day. I watched it religiously and even created several hundred videotapes of programs that looked interesting. Even though I was no longer studying film history and criticism at UCLA, with the avowed intention of becoming a college professor, I was still—and am still—a lover of the great films.
In 1988, Jerry Harvey murdered his wife and shot himself. The new owners, SportsChannel, decided to add sports to the program. Almost overnight, movies started playing second fiddle to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Out of a fit of rage, I called the cable network to cancel what I called “the hockey channel.” Evidently, I was not the only one, because the representative who took my call knew exactly what I was talking about without my mentioning the name of the service I was canceling.
Last week, I saw a wonderful documentary directed by Xan Cassavetes, daughter of actor/director John Cassavetes. It was called Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004). It brought back to me that golden decade, the Eighties, when great films were regularly screened on cable.
Today, by way of contrast, the cable movie channels tend to concentrate on sequels, many of mediocre originals. When HBO or Showtime or Cinemax show a good film, it is an accident.
As I watched the Cassavetes documentary, I felt a keen sense of loss. Jerry Harvey had been a genius. Although Z Channel’s subscribers were concentrated in the West Los Angeles area, that is where the movers and shakers in the film industry are concentrated. And they were all, almost to a man, subscribers to Z. It is as if, when those hockey games started showing up on Z, there were a massive disturbance in the Force. One that has never been reversed or even ameliorated. Years later, I still miss seeing the cinema classics that I have always loved on television.