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Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession
Credit Listing  |  The Production  |  Press Release  |  Jerry Harvey  |  Z Channel History  |  Poster

The History of Z Channel

April 26, 1974. Z Channel, whose symbol is “Theta, the Goddess of Television,” is launched in Los Angeles, and so becomes California’s first Pay TV service. Originally, Z only showed two films per week. Its openers were Save the Tiger, starring Jack Lemmon, and Play It Again, Sam, starring Woody Allen.

March, 1978. Z Channel’s repeated broadcasts of Annie Hall, directed by Woody Allen, are discovered to have had a decisive impact on that film’s many Oscar wins -- for the majority of voters (75%) in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences are subscribers to Z.

April, 1978. Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin and publicist Jerry Pam create a popular interview series for Z -- On the Film Scene. Over the next eleven years guests including James Stewart, Steven Spielberg, David Lean, John Huston, Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood and Jessica Lange will appear and discuss their crafts in depth.

December, 1980. Jerry Harvey joins Z Channel as director of programming -- and in 1982 transforms the station into a 24-hour per day service, showing upwards of 20 films per week.

June, 1982. Three films by Stu Cooper, an American filmmaker then working in London, are given their U.S. Premieres on Z Channel -- Overlord, The Disappearance, -and Little Malcolm. That a film should premiere on Pay TV is a remarkable first.

December, 1982. Jerry Harvey discovers a single print of the director’s cut of Heaven’s Gate (the only copy of Michael Cimino’s version then known to exist), languishing in a London warehouse. He immediately makes arrangements to show it on Z, and gives it the cover of the program guide. This bold celebration of a much attacked film provoked industry-wide attention for Z, for Harvey, as well as for Cimino’s film, which has since enjoyed a positive critical reappraisal. As with subsequent Z “rescues,” the director’s cut now prevails on video.

March, 1983. F.X. Feeney joins the staff of Z Channel as a consultant, commencing a long and close friendship with Jerry Harvey.

June, 1984. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s magnum opus Berlin Alexanderplatz, which he originally made for television, receives its U.S. television premiere on Z Channel. It has never appeared on American television since.

October, 1984. The five and a half hour “miniseries version” of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander receives its American premiere on Z, as does the original, five and a quarter hour 1900 by Bernardo Bertolucci.

August, 1985. Sergio Leone’s original cut of Once Upon a Time in America is aired on Z, side by side with the studio’s radically butchered version -- and viewers overwhelmingly respond in favor of Leone’s cut. Also: the original five and a half hour miniseries version of Das Boot airs.

April, 1986. Z celebrates its 12th anniversary by commencing a three-month retrospective of the entire body of work of Charlie Chaplin -- the first time his work (then not available on video) has been so fully made available to the public, on television.

September, 1986. Z recovers an early John Ford talkie that had been thought lost: Up the River (1930), which pairs Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy.

January, 1987. With the cooperation of director Karel Reisz, Z restores the original three hour cut of his 1968 Isadora, starring Vanessa Redgrave. Later in the month, the American Film Institute sponsors a daylong tribute to Z Channel, emceed by Stu Cooper, whose guests include Richard Brooks, Oliver Stone, Henry Jaglom, Kris Kristofferson, James Woods, James B. Harris, and many more.

May, 1987. Z premieres the British miniseries Wagner, photographed by Vittorio Storaro and built upon a superb lead performance by Richard Burton.

July, August, September, 1987. Z devotes a large portion of its schedule to the bodies of work of three master-directors -- Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, and Sam Peckinpah (the latter as part of a three month festival of rare but classic westerns).

October, 1987. After a half decade of changing hands (Westinghouse having sold it in 1983 to a consortium of owners), Z had nevertheless enjoyed years of sustained growth owing to Jerry Harvey’s innovative programming, and is bought by Gordon Rock and associates of Seattle. This is a happy union -- Rock has detailed plans to make Z available throughout the United States. (Astonishingly, it had achieved its already national reputation despite being available only in Los Angeles.) These hopes crash with the 1987 stock market. Jerry, who loves sports almost as much he loves movies, attempts to save Z’s prospects by accepting a proposed merger with Spectacore, a sports channel. The merger and launch are set for Z’s 14th anniversary in April.

October, 1987 -- March, 1988. Still more body-of-work festivals, focusing on such master-directors as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Buster Keaton, Richard Brooks and Roman Polanski (including his original cuts of Cul de Sac and Dance of the Vampires), as well as a three month tribute to the films of John Ford.

April 1, 1988. Sports channel officially takes over Z Channel, and “Z plus Sports” is launched. With this, comes a variety of extraordinary pressures -- since February, with news of the merger, Z has been entangled in a complicated lawsuit against its biggest rivals over an issue of “restraint of trade.” Jerry Harvey finds himself in court, giving lengthy depositions against colleagues (even rivals) with whom he’d formerly enjoyed good relations. After the launch, he stays home sick for a week.

April 9, 1988. Jerry Harvey shoots his wife to death and turns the gun on himself.

April 10, 1988 -- June 30, 1989. The merger with sports had already caused Z to lose subscribers in droves. Jerry Harvey’s death ultimately sealed the company’s fate. His logical successor, Tim Ryerson, whom he’d groomed for such an ascent, was made head of programming, and energetically carried out two of Jerry’s still outstanding dreams -- to air the director’s cuts of Visconti’s Ludwig, and to show the restored cut of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Beyond these triumphs, Tim could only put into effect the remainder of Jerry’s other detailed plans, which at his death extended to June 1989.

June 30, 1989. Z Channel goes off the air forever.