Top Value Television came to the 1972 Democratic and Republican National Conventions armed with the revolutionary glowing rectangle of portable video and a new sense of entitlement. Though they took their equipment everywhere the established media did and many places it didn’t, their chosen arena was elsewhere: a communal media space, into which they hoped to invite and then engage the entire country. With a mindset unlike most documentarians—not just artists, not muckrakers, not saviors—they aspired to mix the freedom of video equipment they could carry on their bodies with the excitement and skepticism of the counterculture, using attitude to turn media upside down, or maybe inside out. Three of their early tapes—The World’s Largest TV Studio (1972), Four More Years (1972), and Gerald Ford’s America (1975)—recall a moment when the media seemed poised for change and the political system open for public viewing, and maybe intervention.
Maureen Orth (right) interviews Catherine Mackin (NBC), the first female floor reporter, as Gloria Steinem passes by at the 1972 Democratic Convention
Crises of relevance are old hat today. Whether it’s the rush to relate to Black Lives Matter demonstrators or present entertainment that resonates with people sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic, mainstream media companies are now in the business of worrying how to hold on to their fickle audiences. In the three-network era of the early 1970s, even though disaffected audiences had nowhere else to turn, network executives (who tend to smell of fear) worried that their coveted young audiences would abandon their staid and structured programming. Cable TV, at that time an upstart rule-breaker that promised to end channel scarcity and open up television to new, diverse voices, jumped in and underwrote TVTV’s excursions to the 1972 conventions. TVTV’s interventions reveal the difference between making TV as a job and making it as an adventure.
TVTV catches a tired Walter Cronkite in the aftermath of the 1972 Democratic Convention
Watching only the finished programs can’t begin to communicate the flavor of TVTV’s work. As with all unscripted television, the narrative is in the cut show, but the reality lies in the source tapes. Like classic cinema-verité but without the limitations of fixed-length film rolls and the expense of raw stock, this is TV whose tactic and ultimate goal is to explore as much as record. The tapes are often chaotic, sometimes incoherent. Steeped in the low-res portable video aesthetic (think of your very first camera phone) and what cantankerous Soviet documentary pioneer Dziga Vertov called in a very different context “the maelstrom of colliding phenomena known as life,” they can be as hard to look at as an early YouTube. But consider the difference between these tapes and today’s highly crafted video documentaries, meticulously edited, flaws removed except where they’re left in for aesthetic effect, every frame altered by the hand of the postproduction colorist and every scene scored with music that more often than not guides your emotions. In most of today’s docs, you can close your eyes, listen to the music, and come away with some sense of the narrative. In TVTV’s tapes, you can plug your ears and watch the gyrations of the camera. Think of their spontaneous scenes, many discovered by chance and simply pointing the camera in the right direction, as tweets from a past that also foretells something of the future.
A tourist photographs riot police en route to quell a protest at the 1972 Republican Convention
But there’s something serious foreshadowed in these playful programs. TVTV secured an unprecedented level of access—not only to political insiders and to the White House itself (imagine such unspun continuity coming out of the West Wing today!), but to the working press on the job. One of the great pleasures of their tapes is the unscripted interplay between the makers and normally highly scripted TV anchors and journalists. TVTV doesn’t try to catch the news with its pants down, but meets celebrities as equals in the same way Michael Moore would confront the powerful later on. At least among coastal elites, media savviness was a distinctly 1970s creation. There were semi-popular magazines like (MORE): A Journalism Review (founded in 1971), a rash of books, and, beginning with Watergate in 1972, a heightened sense that the press was truly a Fourth Estate, itself a power center. In other words, journalists were in a position not simply to report the world but to change it. The TVTV tapes take media savviness and consciousness of the media as its own story into a long moment in which political activity and social struggle slid out of the streets into the symbolic domain. As part of this transition, images and media in all its forms became more influential than politics itself, and controlling the content and spread of images became a primary focus of the world’s gatekeepers. Ultimately this would lead to the fusion of documentary and entertainment and to the world we live in today, where social media is indistinguishable from society itself.
Ronald Reagan in TVTV's fisheye lens at the 1972 Republican National Convention
Skip Blumberg and Andy Mann make an impromptu two-camera experiment between interviewing senators for Gerald Ford's America
I would include TVTV among the crusaders of their time—crusaders for public media literacy and media savviness who brought a toolbox of humor, informality, and technological innovation to their work. But in doing so, let’s remember what media commentator Carrie McLaren called the biggest problem with media literacy: that it turns analysts and critics into fans. TVTV were media interlopers for a time, yes, but also big-time media fans. Their work promises exposure and revelation, but it also exudes charm and faith—the charm of portable video at a moment when it was still an unaffected medium, and faith that showing the inner workings of media as politics and politics as media could lead to public understanding and create gateways for change. The effect of their work was certainly felt in the independent documentary boom beginning in the late 1970s and 1980s and which is ongoing, but much of today’s documentary product lacks a commensurate sense of spontaneity and adventure.
Dan Rather exits "the world's largest TV studio" after the 1972 Deomcratic National Convention
Some TVTV members, like Megan Williams and Skip Blumberg, remained in the documentary and independent video world. Michael Shamberg and Bill Murray went to Hollywood. The Ant Farmers veered into the arts. But the buttoned-down management of the TV networks, at least those who would survive the cable and home video upheavals, straightened their ties and moved on.
Rick Prelinger is co-founder of San Francisco's Prelinger Library and the Chair of the Department of Film & Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz. He is known for his radical championing of amateur and non-Hollywood media, and as host of Lost Landscapes screenings that show small-gauge home movies as a window into history from the bottom up.