These days a lot of folks are “cutting the cord,” deserting their cable TV services for smart sets with a plethora of streaming options. One major motivation for this movement is the ever-growing cost of cable services. I admit to being an OG streamer because several years ago I received my outrageous June cable bill and realized that I hadn’t even turned on the damn set since the SVU season finale the month before.
These days, there seems to be a revolt among cable TV subscribers as many of them have become “cord cutters”, dropping expensive contracts for custom collections of services like Hulu, Netflix and Peacock. But there was a day many years ago when cable was actually worth what you paid for it, offering content you couldn’t get from just hooking your TV up to that rickety old antenna clinging to the side of your building.
In 1978 I moved into my current WeHo crib and celebrated by buying a brand new 19-inch color TV and signing up for Theta Cable. My ‘hood has always been plagued by poor TV reception due to mountains blocking the signal from the network transmission towers. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was enjoying my best experience with pay-TV and it would just be downhill from there.
Unlike current corporate cable services that appeal to audiences of millions, Theta was based in Santa Monica and catered to a select clientele residing on the westside of L.A. including Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. This allowed Theta Cable to offer an eclectic selection of films in addition to the usual menu of local network channels.
Theta Cable service included a very desirable perk – the Z Channel. This is where program director Jerry Harvey was able to let his imagination run free and give his industry-heavy group of subscribers a mix of recent blockbusters and more esoteric fare like silent films, foreign films, and under-appreciated B-movies. The Z Channel is remembered so fondly by local cinephiles that it inspired a documentary by Xan Cassavetes called “A Magnificent Obsession.”
This was before most of us had video recorders and way before studios started sending “screeners” to Oscar voters when the only way to get your target audience to view your product was to lure them into free screenings. When those studios noticed how many of their voters subscribed to Theta, they made some of their Oscar-nominated films available for viewing. Most films aired only once but they could be watched by all Theta customers, not just Academy members. I recall this as being the only year that I watched the Oscars having actually seen most of the nominated films.
Alas, it was too good to last. In 1981, Theta was purchased by Group W and would eventually be absorbed by one of the corporate conglomerates, and WeHo viewers were offered the same smorgasbord of approved content that plays in Peoria. I like to think that the spirit of the Z Channel lives on in niche streaming channels like Classic Reel, which offers ad-free films from 1930 to 1980 in Technicolor and Cinemascope for just $3 a month.
Meanwhile, the cable giants are fighting to hold onto the dwindling number of customers happy to pay $200 a month for 100+ channels while actually watching about ten of them. Meanwhile, more adventurous viewers are customizing their viewing experience by picking and choosing from an ever-growing selection of streaming options.