First there was HBO and Showtime, then came the internet with Kazaa and Limelight, but who was REALLY the first and better than all the rest put together? It was the ‘Z Channel’.

Part 1

Full disclosure first: I used to work for Westinghouse Broadcasting and Cable and they used to own and promote the Z Channel, The Country Music Channel, Home Theater Network, Satellite News Channel and The Travel Channel as well as many radio stations. zmag.jpg

In the 1970’s Jerry Harvey programmed movies for the Beverly Canon, a repertory theater in Los Angeles, and made a name for himself when he booked the uncut version of “The Wild Bunch” and its director, Sam Peckinpah, delivered the print in person. Z Channel had been started in 1974 by a cable franchise as one of the country’s first pay-movie channels. In 1980 Harvey wrote to Z’s new owner, Select TV, complaining that their programming was terrible. He was hired. Under Harvey, the Z Channel became a 24-hour mix of films by auteur directors like François Truffaut and Akira Kurosawa, little-known European movies, popular fare like “Silver Streak” and “The Empire Strikes Back” , Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Road Warrior: Mad Max 2, and, late at night, soft-core offerings. Harvey soon found another niche for the channel to fill. After “Heaven’s Gate” was re-edited and shortened in a failed attempt to reverse its course as the biggest flop in movie history, he decided to play Michael Cimino’s four-hour original version. The reassembled movie received admiring reviews, and the Z Channel was regarded as a new kind of salvager.

While working at Westinghouse, I was tasked with launching Z Channel as a satellite national pay TV subscription channel and boy, was I jazzed to get this done. I thought the Z Channel was the nest best thing invented for pay TV next to the folded napkin. The problem was, once the ‘local’ footprint left for a ‘national’ footprint, different rules of the game in Hollywood applied and Z was not given the kind of licensing rights for films that they were granted locally. This made a subscription look more like a poor man’s HBO or SHOWTIME and that would not have worked on a national level.

“The whole idea of a director’s cut being something you could actually market came out of his rescue of ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ ” Mr. Feeney said. “It’s an important measure, because home video, home viewing via pay TV, these things have really revolutionized how we perceive movies.” (Feeney or F.X. – was a brilliant reviewer working for Z Channel at the time).

Harvey went on to do the same kinds of unusual broadcasts with Wolfgang Petersen ‘s six-hour “Das Boot,” originally a mini-series in Germany; Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 14-hour “Berlin Alexanderplatz”; and the five-and-a-half-hour version of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900.” (In “Z Channel,” Mr. Payne brags that he still has the “1900” he recorded on VHS at the time.) Harvey played the cut and uncut versions of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” as a double feature to show the difference in quality.

Harvey also gave us sneak previews of every academy award nominated film each year in January, right after the nominations came out. Those of us who were subscribers in southern California looked forward to that week on Z. Somehow, someway Harvey was able to get a copy from each of the studios months BEFORE the film was released on VHS. A totally unprecedented event in the world of pay TV, this was the ultimate cool factor for a pay TV service at that time. No other Pay TV service was doing this or even thought of it.

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2 comments on “First there was HBO and Showtime, then came the internet with Kazaa and Limelight, but who was REALLY the first and better than all the rest put together? It was the ‘Z Channel’.

  1. boy, how things have changed. first and foremost, i doubt any director other than steve spielberg, is provided financial support to make anything longer than a three hour movie. secondly, i doubt that the movie studios can revive pay-per-view, which is a dying business due to VOD and inexpensive DVDs.

  2. Edward-

    yes, things have changed and they will change even more drastically and in a shorter period of time than ever before. PPV is morphing now into a completely different model than it ever was. The studios fostered and at the same time killed the business before it ever got off the ground. And if they read this, they would not agree. But that’s another chapter.
    ~b.

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