Rainbow to Add Hockey Games : Z Channel Sold to Sports, News Programming Firm

Times Staff Writer

Z Channel--the quirky and acclaimed Los Angeles-area cable-TV service that for 15 years has specialized in an eclectic mix of old, new and foreign movie fare--is being acquired for an undisclosed sum by a New York-based cable firm whose programming consists largely of news and sports.

Rainbow, the programming subsidiary of Cablevision Systems Corp., will take over Z Channel on March 16.

Rainbow operates six other cable regional sports services--in New York, New England, Chicago, Philadelphia, Florida and Ohio--as well as SportsChannel America, a national programming service launched in January.

Z Channel executives declined to comment on the deal Tuesday. However, Dan Martinson, a spokesman for Rainbow, said the company has "no changes planned and no earth-shattering announcements to make for the immediate future."

According to Martinson, Rainbow will add to Z Channel's programming SportsChannel America's package of National Hockey League games, including the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs, "which Los Angeles would not have had without this purchase," he said.

"From our perspective, getting a foothold in the Los Angeles area is exciting," Martinson said. "We've always wanted to get our NHL coverage in there."

The Rainbow acquisition marks at least the fifth time that the long financially troubled Z Channel has changed hands since it was launched by Theta Cable in 1974. In 1987, it was sold by Group W Cable to a small Seattle-based cable company called Rock Associates for an estimated $5 million.

For most of its history, Z Channel was noted for airing films that other cable movie channels never even thought of, including the original 4 1/2-hour version of Michael Cimino's all-time box-office disaster "Heaven's Gate," a 15 1/2-hour version of the late German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" and a long-lost 1930 "B" movie called "Up the River," starring two then-unknown actors named Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart.

While the programming found a loyal following among film buffs and earned praise from the American Film Institute for "fostering visual literacy," Z Channel reportedly was losing subscribers and money when Rock Associates merged with American Spectacor in January, 1988.

After the new owner began adding sports programming to Z Channel's traditional movie fare, however, subscriptions rose nearly 40%, the company said.

Z Channel has exclusive cable telecast rights to 35 home games of the Los Angeles Dodgers and California Angels, as well as 28 games by the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.

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