Z to Merge, Change Its All-Film Format

Times Staff Writer

In a bid to enlarge its long-stagnant pay-TV subscriber base, Los Angeles' home-grown Z Channel said Tuesday it is merging with two other companies and will abandon its all-movie format to include live sports events, beginning with home baseball games of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the California Angels.

But the 14-year-old pay-TV service said that despite its agreement in principle to enter a joint venture called American Spectacor, it has no plans to tamper with the unique blend of movies it offers, from recent box-office hits to classics, foreign films and revivals and restorations of little seen works.

"Say you don't repeat "Police Academy III" that third time--is that really screwing up the purity of it (the service)?" asked Jerry Harvey, vice president of programming at the Z Channel and its principal guiding force since 1980. "I see this as a way to reach a larger audience."

Rock Associates Inc., a Seattle-based firm that bought the Z Channel last September, will now share ownership with its partners in American Spectacor--American Cablesystems, which owns and manages cable TV systems in Southern California and four other states, and Spectacor, a conglomerate that previously founded the Prism pay-TV channel in Philadelphia and owns the Hughes Television Network, the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team and several sports arenas. Spectacor also has entered into a joint venture with MCA to bid on rights to manage the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

Joseph M. Cohen, chief executive officer of the new venture and executive vice president of Spectacor, said in an interview that the goal is to establish the Z Channel as a regional pay-TV service offering a mix of movies and local sports events. It will be offered to cable subscribers at a monthly fee, probably in the range of $12 to $14, he said.

American Spectacor had purchased the rights to 35 Dodgers and Angels games even before the involvement of the Z Channel was finalized. Those exclusive telecasts of specially selected home games will begin in April.

Cohen said the company hopes to line up other sports events and is talking with the Los Angeles Clippers, USC and UCLA, among others.

Though admired for its film-buff approach to movies, the Santa Monica-based Z Channel has never gained wide distribution and has had trouble turning a profit against the competition of such cable services as Home Box Office and Showtime. It has about 80,000 subscribers at present, Harvey said, the same number it has had for the past few years. They will continue to receive the service.

Harvey and Cohen expressed hope that the addition of the sports events would differentiate the service from other pay-TV movie channels and gain it entry to many new cable systems, which in turn would lead to new subscribers.

"I don't view it as a compromise," Harvey said. "I see it as a realistic move at this point in pay television. I'd like to have a strong regional service with enough money to implement the (programming) ideas we come up with."

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