bampfa logo
University of California
Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

TVTV's America

by Brian L. Frye & Maybell Romero

Television is a paradox. It is the most radical medium of expression, but also the most conservative. TVTV peered behind the curtain of the Fourth Estate to show America the media's inner workings.

Television is a paradox. It is the most radical medium of expression, but also the most conservative. It promises change, but resists it at every step. It could become anything, but somehow always becomes something familiar. Should we have expected more, or is that all there is?

TVTV's self-documenting 'Washington Bureau' hashes out politics and practicalities while shooting Gerald Ford's America. Left to Right: Megan Williams, Jody Sibert, Wendy Appel, Skip Blumberg

TVTV's self-documenting "Washington Bureau" hashes out politics and practicalities while shooting Gerald Ford's America. L-R: Megan Williams, Jody Sibert, Wendy Appel, Skip Blumberg

Top Value Television, or TVTV, was a guerrilla video production collective that pioneered the use of consumer video, especially the revolutionary Sony Portapak, in the service of social change. Based primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area and later in Los Angeles, it was founded in 1972 by Allen Rucker, Michael Shamberg, Tom Weinberg, Wendy Appel, Hudson Marquez, and Megan Williams. Over time, more than thirty video artists contributed to TVTV productions, including members of the Raindance, Ant Farm, and Videofreex art collectives.

TVTV is best known for its documentaries, especially Four More Years (1972), which covered the 1972 Republican National Convention, and The Lord of the Universe (1974), which followed the bizarre antics of the teenage Guru Maharaj-ji and his followers. Like other TVTV tapes, both were broadcast by select public television stations, to the amusement of some viewers and the bemusement of others.

Maureen Orth (right) interviews Catherine Mackin (NBC), the first female floor reporter, as Gloria Steinem passes by at the 1972 Democratic Convention

Dan Rather (left) and Tom Brokaw wait for the story outside the White House on the afternoon of Nixon's resignation

In the 1970s, network television stations typically used 16mm film, which they edited for broadcast. But film was awkward, bulky, and expensive. You could only film for about ten minutes before you had to reload the camera. You could only carry a limited amount of film. And you could only use as much as your budget allowed. As a consequence, everyone focused on the main event, and captured some B-roll for color and cutaways.

By contrast, video was relatively easy to use, light, and cheap. Of course, it still meant lugging around a camera on your shoulder connected to a battery-powered reel-to-reel video recorder. But compared to sync-sound film gear, videotape was not only more affordable and portable; it was also reusable. So, unlike the networks, TVTV could record just about anything and everything. And they took full advantage of that freedom.

Allen Rucker posing with Ronald McDonald while shooting ADLAND

Allen Rucker with his Portapak and Ronald McDonald while shooting Adland (1973)

Network news was jealous with content. No one started filming until the principals arrived, and everyone kept their camera focused on the prize. TVTV didn’t care. They started recording before they even entered the building, and were as interested in the other reporters as in the politicians they were supposed to be watching. When network news filmed civilians, they were hunting for a sound bite. TVTV would just converse and record the whole thing. It was a whole different way of doing news. And it was a whole different way of thinking about what could be news.

Video thus freed TVTV from the burden of film and enabled them to abandon the conventions of network news. Suddenly, news could be anything and everything. None of their subjects saw it coming. Politicians weren’t used to being recorded after they stepped out of the lights. No one expected to be recorded at parties. And reporters couldn’t even imagine becoming part of the story. It was all so confusing.

TVTV used that confusion to turn news on its head. They flouted every convention of the medium. Hell, they didn’t even bother learning the conventions. They just realized that video had created an opportunity, and they ran with it. They recorded politicians answering questions off the cuff, socialites speaking their minds, citizens saying their piece, and journalists breaking the fourth wall of the Fourth Estate. What a delightful mess!

UN officials at a function in the Washington DC Hilton

TVTV catches the upper crust of UN delegates at the Washington, D.C. Hilton while shooting Gerald Ford's America

Looking back from the present—in which “alternative facts” and disinformation are peddled wholesale by politicians across the political spectrum, and established news agencies and outlets have devoted themselves to their respective ideological bents—it’s clear that, when it comes to news coverage by outlets like TVTV, “fake” can be just as good, if not better.

What did “real” news look like at the time? Walter Cronkite, perhaps the most famous news anchor of all time, hosted The CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981. Cronkite became an icon for his dispassionate reading of the news from behind the anchor desk and for his snappy closing catchphrase, “And that’s the way it is.” Except it wasn’t. Events in real time don’t occur with the calm remove of a nightly newscast. The journalistic conventions of mainstream news are limiting in a way that TVTV transcended, even if just briefly and in a way seldom seen since.

Walter Cronkite at the 1972 Republican National Convention

Walter Cronkite in his shirtsleeves after the 1972 National Conventions

TV shows aiming to satirize conventional television news have proliferated in recent years: The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight, and Full Frontal are prominent examples. These shows, by adopting the artifice of conventional news in order to poke serious fun at it, still fall far short of what TVTV accomplished in its day. Many of the news satire shows have only been able to survive due to how conventional they really are: Those who tune in or appear on these shows know what they’re getting in terms of format and ideological bent. While there are jokes, there are no real surprises. In this sense, TVTV and its brand of “fake” news was better than the real (fake) thing, being divorced from scripts, fancy newsrooms, and filters on content, either external or imposed by a larger organizational structure.

Among other things, TVTV aimed to expose “the underbelly of broadcast TV.” It succeeded in spades: its tapes were delightfully weird, crass, amusing, and subversive, even as all of them were eventually swallowed and consumed by the monolith that is cultural memory. And if some of TVTV’s incisive documentaries about American politics and society got more attention than others, many of those that didn’t make a splash in the moment were just as important, and are well worth revisiting.

For example, in the brilliant Gerald Ford’s America (1975), TVTV embedded themselves in the White House press corps and documented the accidental presidency of Gerald Ford. Capturing a wide range of responses to Ford from all walks of life and social strata, the piece focuses on the attitudes and expectations of Ford’s supporters. Middle America was willing to accept Nixon’s awkward replacement as a credible leader primarily because he looked the part. Who is the epitome of a role model? “My dad,” of course. But Ford would do in a pinch: tall, serious, and full of meaningless platitudes.

Upstate New York family discusses president Ford

A middle American family, proud to have their name mentioned by president Ford on national television; from the outtakes of Gerald Ford's America

Washington society was also delighted by Ford, but for entirely different reasons. He represented change, without actually changing anything that mattered. And they knew he would play along, a talent he had displayed for years as leader of the House Republican Caucus.

Today, the most fascinating aspect of the tape is the willingness of its subjects to speak with absolute candor. It is “reality television” long before the genre was ever conceived, with actors actually playing themselves, rather than genre stereotypes. Of course, it doesn’t make them any less stereotyped, but it does make them refreshingly unpredictable. Suddenly, people were getting their close-ups when they least expected it, and they did their level best to mug for the camera. The results weren’t always pretty, but they were certainly revealing.

In particular, Hubert Humphrey is a perennial presence in TVTV’s coverage, squinting and complaining about the spinelessness of his Democratic colleagues. He is both insufferable and charming, so relentlessly on message and persistent it becomes tiresome, but so committed you can’t help admiring his tenacity. And yet, you can see politics changing on camera: Humphrey’s style and peculiar charm would never translate to network news.

The outtakes from Gerald Ford’s America are as interesting as the finished tape. They reflect the TVTV style of recording things no one else notices and pressing people in unexpected ways. Ultimately, the subject of the tape isn’t the Ford administration itself as much as the idea of the Ford administration, and the network news that created it. Reporters were accustomed to creating the story, not being the story; the network correspondents had no idea what to do with the TVTV reporters, who were always pointing the camera in the wrong direction.

Senator Robert Byrd and a Capitol Subway driver filmed by TVTV

Senator Robert Byrd and an African-American driver for the Capitol Subway watch themselves on a monitor, from tape shot by TVTV moments earlier; from the outtakes of Gerald Ford's America

TVTV were equal-opportunity trolls: they were as skeptical of radicals as they were of anyone else. When one protester suggested Angela Davis would make a good president, they asked why she would be any different from anyone else. After all, if politics is just power, the only question is who suffers.

Sadly, all weird things must come to an end. Gerald Ford’s America was arguably the zenith of the TVTV project. The collective moved to Los Angeles not long after the tape was finished, and eventually disbanded in 1977, as many of its members shifted their focus to commercial projects.

Viewers of Gerald Ford’s America could be forgiven for laughing at it, feeling like they’re looking into a time capsule filled with people rendered as unrelatable curiosities. Near the beginning of the tape, President Ford visits a Midwest city, where throngs of people wait for him at the municipal airport. Several comment that they are waiting for a glimpse of Ford because seeing a president is the opportunity of a lifetime; others mention, with no prompting, that they pray for President Ford every night. While these sentiments may seem quaint to some viewers, similar ones are frequently expressed by supporters of President Trump today. Perhaps that’s part of the humor and appeal of the tape; it’s much easier to laugh at inhabitants of the past than at oneself in the present.

Oregon Governor Tom McCall interviewed in November 1974

Oregon Governor Tom McCall on Ford's meat-and-potatoes appeal three months into Ford's presidency

Brian L. Frye is Spears-Gilbert Professor of Law at the University of Kentucky College of Law. His research focuses on intellectual property and legal history, especially in relation to the arts. He is also a filmmaker and film programmer.

Maybell Romero is an Associate Professor of Law at Northern Illinois University College of Law, where she teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Law, and Constitutional Law. Her research focuses on criminal legal system ethics, law and rurality, and juvenile justice.