The Distinctly Los Angeles Phenomenon of the Z Channel Inspired a Generation

If you didn’t grow up in Los Angeles (or did so, but after 1989), then you likely missed out on a region-specific cultural phenomenon that found teenagers, industry insiders, and film buffs glued to their TV screens. For 15 glorious years, a signal beamed out of Santa Monica broke down barriers and expanded minds with its cold blue radiance. It was called the Z Channel; a name steeped in mystery. And though it may have sounded like the title of a schlocky sci-fi b-movie, it offered the most real thing you’d find on the ol’ idiot box. 

The Early Years of Z Channel

What the Z Channel offered in the early 1980s wouldn’t sound exactly revolutionary by today’s standards. On its surface, it was simply a paid cable channel offering a more diverse selection of programming than its competitors. But its ambition and vision far outstripped its peers. 

It started simply enough; a local cable channel airing in 1974, owned by Theta Cable, that screened two curated films a week. Z Channel wasn’t the first pay channel launched in the Golden State. That distinction would go to Subscription Television Inc. which aired in 1964 before quickly flaming out. But Z Channel was easily the most forward-thinking. This just wouldn’t become widely apparent until 1980 when a major addition was added to their staff. 

Jerry Harvey Sets the Course

Jerry Harvey was a screenwriter (remember China 9, Liberty 37 anyone?… anyone?) and movie obsessive who would go on to set the tone for Z Channel through his thought-provoking programming. Only 31 years old when he accepted the looming responsibility of programming manager, his tastes transformed Z Channel into a platform that found equal importance in art films, b-movies, foreign films, and blockbusters. 

In just two years under Harvey’s guidance, Z Channel became the hippest channel in Hollywood, offering round-the-clock programming you couldn’t find anywhere else. It ran roughshod over the boundaries established by other pay television channels, placing its reverence instead in cinema itself. Z Channel had no problem showing films of the silent age, director’s cuts, and cinematic bombs. You never knew what it would plaster across your pixelated screen, but you could count on it being interesting. 

The Heaven’s Gate Gambit

By 1982, Z Channel’s star had risen. Group W Cable, which had purchased parent company Theta Cable in 1980, began offering HBO, Showtime, and The Movie Channel to subscribers in 1982. Yet, Z Channel still retained its loyal subscribers, outselling the competition three-to-one. 

Perhaps the true sign of Z Channel’s (and, by extension, Harvey’s) intuition came on Christmas Eve 1982. It was on that evening that the channel aired the nearly four-hour original cut of Michael Cimino’s critically maligned 1980 Western Heaven’s Gate. Harvey’s bold move paid off. Against expectations, Heaven’s Gate became the most-watched feature film to ever air on Z Channel. 

Other pay channels silently conceded the brilliant move by licensing Heaven’s Gate soon afterward. Recognizing that film buffs appreciated director’s cuts decades before DVDs would deliver them as special features, Harvey took Heaven’s Gate’s success as a license to hassle studios into plumbing their vaults for hidden treasures. 

Exclusive But Essential

But Z Channel remained more or less a Los Angeles phenomenon. The fact that it wasn’t available outside of Southern California could have contributed to a sense of elitism. Yet it remained welcoming, even while being embraced by Hollywood’s movers, shakers, and tastemakers. 

Throughout the early 1980s, the channel became even more essential, bolstered by insightful curation, critical interview programming hosted by the likes of Charles Champlin and Mick Garris, and even its own monthly magazine offering thought-provoking film analysis. If you loved film in LA (and who didn’t?) you loved Z Channel. But even in Hollywood, that which goes up must come down. 

The Waxing and Waning of Z Channel

Photo credit: Ken Lund

By the mid-1980s, Harvey’s programming was still top-notch, but subscriptions to Z Channel were slipping. Part of this was due to Group W lowering the priority for marketing the eclectic channel. When Rock Associates took control in 1987, their intentions were clear. Z Channel would be sold off as soon as possible. 

Rock Associates’ $4.5 million investment was still a glimmer of hope for the floundering channel. Leadership changed, but Harvey remained and his gift for curation went uncontested. He even signed a lengthy contract with an agreement that he could continue to oversee the channel’s programming unfettered. With talk of satellite expansions across Southern California, and then the country as a whole, the dream of Z Channel finally seemed poised to grow beyond the confines of Los Angeles. But Z Channel would forever remain an LA thing. 

In early 1988, critical shake-ups all but pulled the plug on Z Channel. Leadership began to question the draw of an all-movie format. New partnerships opened the door for deals with the Dodgers, the Angels, and the Clippers. Subscriptions jumped in response as new owners wooed viewers not drawn by the channel’s cinematic sensibilities. But one event changed Z Channel’s trajectory so drastically that it would never recover. 

Tragedy On and Off the Screen

Photo credit: Envato

Those who knew Harvey recognized that the programmer had a dark side that he tried to outshine with celluloid radiance. But on April 9, 1988, he murdered his wife of two years with a pistol before turning the gun on himself and ending his own life. While Z Channel would hang on for another year, many longtime viewers feel like the esoteric channel died with Harvey. 

Z Channel needed $5 million to cover the cost of its new sports programming deal. They found their solution in selling advertising spots during the live broadcasts. But HBO and a handful of motion picture studios wasted no time in filing a lawsuit against Z Channel for what they viewed as a breach of contract. A judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Left with no other options, they were passed to new owners Cablevision who scrapped the pay channel in favor of all-sports programming. 

After 15 years of inspiring cinephiles all over LA, Z Channel aired its final film. That Thursday night, programmers selected John Ford’s 1946 Western My Darling Clementine. The film had been a favorite of Harvey’s. And then everything went dark.

The Legacy of a Dream Unrealized

Though Z Channel signed off three-and-a-half decades ago, its influence continues to resonate through Hollywood today. Quentin Tarantino recounts watching shared videotapes recorded from the channel by a considerate friend. It was the subject of an insightful documentary in 2004 entitled Z Channel: A Magnificient Obsession. Author Bret Easton Ellis namechecks the channel repeatedly throughout his latest novel The Shards. Directors such as Robert Altman and Jim Jarmusch have wistfully recalled the golden era of Z Channel. 

Its pay TV predecessors have also grudgingly acknowledged the influential format and prestige programming that made the modern streaming incarnations such as Max, Amazon Prime, and even the Criterion Channel possible. Some have grumbled that Z Channel’s Santa Monica headquarters gave the channel an unfair advantage. After all, they were situated in a veritable factory of cinema and broadcasting to some of the world’s most prominent cinephiles. But, as Harvey pointed out in a 1986 interview, “Do they think people don’t love movies in St. Louis? In Minneapolis? This thing would work anywhere there are film lovers.” Z Channel’s success was never measured in numbers. Just ask anyone who had the obscure pleasure of stumbling upon it in its prime. 

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