Film Appreciation : Basic and Pay Cable Channels Are Building Libraries of Classics For You To Check Out

Times Staff Writer

The Z Channel lives today only as a sepia-tinted memory.

The defunct cable network didn’t attract as many viewers as its 13-month-old replacement, The Sports Channel, but its viewers were truly devoted.

Where else could an avid cinephile see old Ernst Luuitsch films? Devour the works of such directors as Francois Truffaut, Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa? Relish the reconstructed versions of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”?

So where is a discerning movie buff to turn? To Bravo and American Movie Classics. The two commercial-free cable networks have helped assuage the loss of Z. Both are owned and operated by Rainbow Program Enterprises of Woodbury, N.Y., which also owns The SportsChannel.


In addition to Bravo and AMC, other channels specialize in classic and foreign movies. Here’s a rundown of the leaders and the pack. Viewers should note that most cable systems carry just two or three of the networks. BRAVO

Ten-year-old Bravo presents U.S. independent and international films, performing arts specials, profiles, interview programs and comedy programs.

This spring, Bravo offered the American cable premiere of Wim Wenders’ award-winning fantasy, “Wings of Desire,” and throughout the summer is paying tribute to such famous directors as Marcel Jean Renoir, Claude LeLouch and Luis Bunuel.

Bravo made the switch from a pay service to a basic cable network two years ago, although a number of cable companies still carry it as a pay service, said vice president and general manager Kathy Dore.

How does Bravo, with a subscription base of 5 million, operate as a basic cable network without commercials?

Rainbow president Josh Sapan said the thinking is that Bravo is so popular that cable operators will want to carry it in order to attract subscribers.

As a basic cable network, Bravo had to conform to the same standards as such basic services as USA, TNT and TBS. “We had to write off a number of films which we felt weren’t appropriate for basic cable,” Dore said. “But we look at it as sort of a trade-off. We were gaining such a widespread following.”

Bravo receives the U.S. cable premiere rights to a majority of its foreign titles because of a long-standing relationship with the independent companies that release them. “They have stuck with us in our transition,” said Jonathan Sehring, vice president of programming. “I go to the Cannes, Berlin and New York film festivals. We have a close relationship with several film directors.”

Despite its reputation for showing foreign films, one needn’t have reading glasses to enjoy Bravo. “The majority of our films are English-language films,” Sehring said.

The network is inundated with requests. “We just got a letter from somebody who said, TI didn’t tape early enough when ‘A Face in the Crowd’ was on,”’ Sehring said. “We have aired that a number of times.” AMC

American Movie Classics began as a pay service in October, 1984, and, like sister network Bravo, made the transition to basic cable two years ago. It’s the only national cable channel devoted to the 1930s-1970s.

“Our commitment is to license for the longest term possible, the very best classic movies we can find,” Sapan said. “We have the right to play them over a number of years and that gives us the opportunity to rest them. The more movies we have in inventory, the greater flexibility we have in scheduling. If it’s Valentine’s Day and we want to schedule love movies and we have thousands of movies under license, we could have the best of our pick of the great classic films.”

AMC has 3,000 titles in its library. “It’s fair to say we do a better job than anyone else on TV in terms of quality control and desire to present material in the form it was made,” Sapan said. That means no colorized movies.

During the past two years, AMC has introduced original programming, as well as dusting off Ralph Edwards’ vintage series, “This Is Your Life.”

“We try to create programming which would provide sharper focus and a greater dimension for our audience in terms of their appreciation of classic movies,” said Brad Siegel, vice president of programming.

AMC receives approximately 300 letters a week from its viewers. “When we premiered ‘Wuthering Heights’ for its 50th anniversary last year,” said Siegel, “people didn’t stop calling. They wanted to see it again and again. The same with ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’ and ‘Three Coins in the Fountain.’ The amount of complaints we get from repeating movies during a month you can count on your hand.”

Stars like Omar Sharif, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds and Shirley Jones are featured hosts on the network, but AMC’s primary host, the relaxed Bob Dorian, appears to be the audience’s favorite.

“Bob gets lots of fan mail,” Siegel said. “He’s the Mister Rogers of classic movies.” Dorian, an actor and film buff, has been a fixture on AMC since its inception. “I grew up with these movies, so it’s just great for me,” he said.

And just what are his favorites?

“Oh, boy,” he said with a laugh. “Have you got about a half an hour? I would have to mention ‘Gunga Din’ because Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and I have had so many conversations about that. ‘Hell’s Angels’ was exciting. It was the first time we had ever seen color footage of Jean Harlow. ‘King Kong’ is another favorite of mine.” NOSTALGIA TELEVISION

The five-year-old network geared to older viewers has cut down the number of vintage films it airs, opting to go for quality instead of quantity.

Historically, 80% of the network’s films were public-domain movies, which anyone may air without paying a fee because the creator no longer has exclusive rights.

“Usually public-domain movies are bad prints,” said Nostalgia chief executive officer Michael E. Marcovsky.

Since Marcovsky came on board earlier this year, he’s changed the name of the network from the Nostalgia Channel to Nostalgia Television and beefed up the schedule with lifestyle series and vintage TV series.

About 25% of the programming consists of movies. Nostalgia recently purchased more than 100 films from the eclectic Janus Collection, which includes such classics as “Black Narcissus,” “The Lavender Hill Mob,” “The Red Shoes” and “Great Expectations.” TNT

Each month TNT airs 220 to 240 movies, primarily from its motherlode of MGM, “KO and pre-1948 Warner Brothers’ libraries. With so many movies, the network has tried to schedule the films around a monthly theme.

“It gives us a way of hooking stuff,” said Lisa Mateas, vice president of program acquisitions and scheduling. “With our ‘All-American’ salute this month we are doing musicals and American movies.”

Musicals, Mateos said, are extremely popular. “You always get a lot of calls about musicals, like Judy Garland musicals. They are special and we try to treat them in a special way.”

TNT’s sister station, TBS, also airs vintage films every week. But TNT is Turner Broadcasting’s film showcase station. It has premiered restored versions of several movies. Earlier this year it aired the complete version of the Astaire-Rogers “Top Hat,” and unsurfaced “Dixiana,” an obscure 1930 black-and-white and color musical that marked the film debut of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. On Aug. 5, TNT will air the 1945 romantic fantasy “The Enchanted Cottage,” with 10 minutes restored. CINEMAX

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Cinemax, the sister station of HBO, airs about 140 movies a month. Getting the attention are recent hits, but there’s also a fair share of classics, foreign, art house and documentary movies.

Cinemax packages its films into categories. This month, “From the Heart” featured such romantic films as “Cousins” and “A New Life.”

“I think what Cinemax is about is volume,” said Dave Baldwin, vice president of program operations. “I think more than anything else, Cinemax is a movie lover’s service.” THE DISNEY CHANNEL

The Disney Channel is a surprisingly good source for vintage films. The network airs more than 50 pictures a month-including such Disney fare as “Mary Poppins,” “Cinderella” and “The Parent Trap.”

Most prime-time and late-night features are geared for adult audiences. Disney’s “Best of Hollywood” series, which airs Mondays at 9 p.m., has showcased the films of such stars as Burt Lancaster, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire and Elvis Presley.

Tuesday’s “Mystery Night,” at 9 p.m., airs classic suspense films. KCOP

Though cable is the primary outlet for classic movies, independent stations also air their share. They are criticized, however, because films often are sliced up to allow for commericals.

Los Angeles station KCOP counters that frequently by expanding its two-hour prime-time movie slot in order to air movies unedited. The station also takes pride that it airs fewer commercials than other stations during the movies. Though R-rated films are often edited for language or content, KCOP did air the unedited version of “The Deer Hunter” 10 years ago.