Back then, HBO and SHOWTIME advertised ‘exclusive’ movies to attract consumers to subscribe. The only way the regular average ‘joe’ consumer knew that ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ or ‘Indiana Jones’ was exclusive to SHOWTIME or HBO back then was if somehow that ‘joe’ saw or heard an advertisement to that effect. BTW as an aside, I believe that the notion of film/pay TV exclusives was invented by Barry Diller while at Paramount (under Bill Mechanics tenure). Otherwise, no one really knew that HBO only had Warner Bros. movies, Universal, Fox and Columbia (Sony) but not Disney and Paramount. But frankly, consumers didn’t care. They only cared that they could watch Beverly Hills Cop on SHOWTIME that month. Movie titles, not actor or Studio names drove the pay TV services. This actually was in direct contrast to what drove movie audiences in the 40-‘s 70’s, which was actors and actress’ names, not titles.
There was no internet for public consumption in 1980. There was no Kazaa, no Limelight. Just video tape and Z Channel. Every month, Z Channel printed a full color, wonderfully full sized (8 1/2″ X 12″) movie guide. Complete with review, full cast and credit lists (down to every gaffer) and plain, unabashed commentary of every film. If Z didn’t like it, they were honest. They loved movies that were disasters and gave them all a platform for exhibition (i.e. Heavens Gate or Howard the Duck). They were the ‘road warrior’ of movie channels. They had more subscribers than HBO and SHOWTIME COMBINED here in southern Los Angeles.
No other pay movie channel ever did movies like Z did. If you were a lover of movies then you couldn’t do without the channel in your home. Not only movies, but they featured Disney, Universal, Hanna Barbara, Avery, Jones, Clampett, Iwerks and Fleischer Animation, classic film series focusing on certain film genre’s: Film Noir, Fallen Women, Gangsters, Greatest Cartoons and Outrageous Cartoons, Hepburn and Tracy, Bacall and Bogart, Grant and Hepburn, Hitchcock and Wells, and John Waters to Cassavettes and more.
So, how was Z Channel able to show Academy Award nominated movies each year prior to the film’s ancillary release to video, airlines, syndication, etc? Not even the dominant Pay service HBO or Showtime were able to show these films. First, Z Channel was not broadcast on a satellite, therefore the signal was not exposed to anyone outside Los Angeles. The Studios rationalized that this ‘local only’ exhibition limited, to an extent, the films exposure and really wouldn’t spoil any subsequent ancillary releases. This was the early 80’s and at that time the video release was the primary revenue generator for the Studios next to pay TV. If the Studios allowed a nationwide release of these films, they would have spoiled the national Pay TV release and ultimately not been able to command the same kinds of prices (license fees) from HBO and Showtime that they were getting. Second, the studios agreed to let Jerry play these films because the screenings helped Academy members screen the films they were suppose to be voting for (the early version of getting a ‘screener’ en-mass). Third, they loved Jerry. They loved his enthusiasm for film, his love of restoring films that were cut to shreds by their distributors (the studios). And, the guys that were in charge of licensing at that time (some) were true film lovers. Bill Mechanic (former CEO of 20th Century Fox, responsible for ‘Titanic’ and the Disney ‘limited release’ VHS strategy) was VP at Paramount, Ned Nalle was VP at Universal, Jamie (The WB TV) Kellner was VP at Orion and Eric Frankel was VP at Warner Bros.
Z was a maverick. The maverick for a pay TV service that should have survived but didn’t. I miss Jerry Harvey and I bet a few people here in Los Angeles miss the Z Channel too. But most of all of what I miss about the Z Channel is the thrill of discovery of the movies. The ones I missed and could read all about and watch and the ones I ever knew I missed, plus all of my favorites.
In September 1987, Rock Associates, a small Seattle company, bought Z and wanted to take it national to compete with HBO and Showtime. A month later, Rock Associates was wiped out in the stock market crash of Oct. 19. In an attempt to save Z Channel, Harvey agreed to merge the company with American Spectacor, a cable firm that had bought the rights to broadcast Dodgers and Angels baseball games. Under the agreement, Z would broadcast live sports and continue to show movies. But the combination did not work for the channel’s fans or its programmer.
Harvey murdered his wife and then killed himself. They were both 39. Z went under a year later. The entwined stories of Harvey and his movie channel are the subject of “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession,” a very good documentary by Xan Cassavete.
All in all, I wish there were other ‘maverick’, type channels that one can sample or watch and discover new programming on. If I have taken too long to make a point, I apologize. What I’ve meant to say from the beginning is this: I think the internet IS that ‘next’ place to discover that new programming or movie/TV show. Its not cable TV anymore. That’s your grandfathers TV.