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The Death of Z Channel--What Now? : Viewers can turn to other stations to help fill the void

June 25, 1989|PEGGY ZIEGLER

There'll never be another Z Channel. It was one-of-a-kind television, shaped by a personal vision and guided by eclectic tastes. But there are other pay-TV and basic-cable channels that Z viewers can turn to, even if their tastes run to offbeat films, little-known works of famous directors and foreign films with sensible subtitles instead of out-of-sync dubbing. They just won't find everything in one place anymore.

Here's a viewer's guide to the other cable channels that primarily run movies:

Mainstream movies. Pick any pay service. Home Box Office, Cinemax, Showtime and The Movie Channel carry blockbuster hits and most other mainstream Hollywood releases. But be advised that, in a battle to tie up exclusive rights to film titles, rivals HBO and Showtime have divvied up the output of most of the major Hollywood studios. Look for this summer's blockbuster Paramount hits "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Star Trek V" and Warner Bros.' "Batman" on HBO and its sister service Cinemax. Showtime and The Movie Channel, on the other hand, have a long-term lease on Disney's Touchstone films, including "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," Bette Midler's films and Tom Hanks' upcoming "Turner and Hootch." Also in Showtime's stable: the "Rambo" films and pictures from producer-directors Rob Reiner, Taylor Hackford and Ron Howard.

Foreign films. Forget subtitled versions when it comes to the two major pay services, HBO and Showtime. Programmers say Middle America prefers dubbed versions, so they banish subtitled films to the wee hours. Even Cinemax and The Movie Channel are cautious; both look for Academy Award-winning films such as Sweden's "My Life as a Dog" and tend to shun riskier fare. Neither, for example, has scheduled Jean-Jacques Beiniex's steamy "Betty Blue." You'll have better luck with Bravo and Arts & Entertainment Network, which schedule foreign films (usually with subtitles) every month. Bravo offers Claude Berri's "Jean Mon Amour" in July. Arts & Entertainment Network's "Screening Room" series turns up treats from time to time: Look for "La Nuit de Varennes" July 4 and China's "Yellow Earth" in October.

Treasures from the vault. Turner Network Television, Ted Turner's grand challenger to network television, has earned itself a neat little reputation for its own cache of screen gems. On June 13, the basic cable service aired the original black-and-white version of Richard Brooks' "Blackboard Jungle" (Turner colorized the movie earlier this year) and dug up a rarely seen series of RKO films known as "The Falcon Mysteries." Another basic cable channel, American Movie Classics, seeks to deliver what its name promises: John Ford's "Fort Apache," "Murder Inc." and the original "Heaven Can Wait" were unfurled this month. Since 1981, Showtime has had a showcase for MGM films each month. Sometimes they're dogs that don't even merit a mention in Showtime's guide, but you'll also find "Gigi," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Silk Stockings."

Bad Bs. Remember "The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman"? "Plan 9 from Outer Space"? "Glenn or Glenda"? Z Channel had a knack for giving you a reason to watch even the worst films. Sure, they were cheap time fillers, but Z never pulled any punches in letting you know just how bad these movies were. It had a "Best of the Worst" series and a "Worst of the Worst" series. The major pay services also face the need to fill time. Cinemax does it with what in corporatespeak is called "opportunistic umbrellas"--that is, cute series names for bad movies. Under the umbrella this fall: the original "The Blob" and its 1988 remake. The Movie Channel has elevated the scheduling of bad movies to an art form with "Joe Bob Briggs' Drive-In Theater." Briggs (satirist John Bloom) rates films by the number of exposed body parts. Enough said.

Restored films. It took Z Channel to unearth a rarity like director John Ford's "Up the River," the 1929 jailhouse comedy that featured the film debuts of Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy. Sadly, hunting for rare films doesn't much interest the major pay services. Some pay homage to various directors and say they are open to opportunities to license restorations. The sensibilities may be slightly different. The Movie Channel last year ran a "Director's Cut" special on the hardly long-lost feature film "Manhunter" by "Miami Vice" producer Michael Mann. Things look better at TNT, which participated in the restoration of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," which was tracked down in TNT's MGM library by Jerry Harvey's Z Channel successor, Tim Ryerson. TNT is restoring most of its $1-billion library of MGM, RKO and pre-1949 Warner Bros. films. In March, TNT aired "Ben Hur" with a restored score.

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