It Was the Best Movie Channel Ever

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.

Jerry Harvey, the Genius Behind Z Channel’s Success

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.


Theta, Goddess of Television

What Happened to the Promise?

What Happened to the Promise?

Back in the 1970s, the first truly great television channel was born. It was called the Z Channel, and it was available only through Theta Cable Television, a subsidiary of TelePrompTer Corporation. Here was a channel made for film freaks such as myself. I could watch not only popular films, but film classics, including French, Italian, and Japanese classics with subtitles.

The trucks belonging to Theta Cable bore the following logo, of which I could find only this very imperfect example on the Internet:

Theta, Goddess of Television

Theta, Goddess of Television

The Z Channel ended badly with a murder/suicide when program director Jerry Harvey shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself.

Around then, the Z Channel segued into the Sports Channel, which interrupted their movies with Stanley Cub playoffs. I remember calling my cable provider and demanding to cancel the hockey channel. They knew what I was talking about.

There were other hopeful beginnings, such as Headline News, CNN, Bravo, TNT, and even MTV at the beginning. Now the only cable channel of any worth is Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which still has no advertising, and which shows films uncut and unscanned (i.e., letterbox versions). As far as I am concerned, the rest is mostly sports (way, way too much sports), right wing news, and celebrity gossip. I would be in heaven if all that mattered to me were Kim Kardashian’s ass and how the Cubs are faring against the Hornets. Oh, yes, and Benghazi!

Cable television was once a land of promise. Then, I suppose, Eve ate the apple; and we were all drummed out of paradise.