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Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

Some Takeaways from a Look at TVTV’s Four More Years and The World’s Largest TV Studio in the Time of Dual Pandemics

by Jon Winet

Has the World Become the World’s Largest TV Studio?

For those of us SIP (sheltered in place) during the COVID-19 pandemic, our experience of life beyond our four walls is for the most part mediated, with the exception of daily urban hikes or rare adventurous trips to the grocery store or pharmacy. Zoom is our window onto—and lifeline into—our friends’, families’, and coworkers’ lives. Our televisions, as always, link us to fiction, “reality,” news, and celebrity gazing. Just a lot more than usual for most of us.

Giving its first videowork the title The World’s Largest TV Studio points to Top Value Television’s (TVTV) insight and prescience.

TVTV’s two political convention videoworks from 1972 (the other being Four More Years) astutely forecast our current situation, admittedly spiked by the pandemic but consistent over the last half century: a mediated universe defined by moving pictures on increasingly high definition screens.


As a fan of the space-time continuum and related sci-fi riffs, I think of photographs as a simple tool for the complicated operation of living and being in two times and two places at once.

Think of a specific physical photograph, perhaps a snapshot joined to your fridge by a magnet or two, or a more formal one framed on the mantel or on a night table, or a class picture of your daughter preserved in your wallet. Just thinking of the photograph and what it portrays locates you where you actually are in time and place, and when and where the photograph was taken. A picture of a family reunion; a group of college students tailgating in pre-Covid times (and, regrettably, perhaps also in the present); a beloved landscape far from the one you currently inhabit; a family dog remembered most fondly years after passing. At the moment of engaging with a photograph, we are here and there, and now and then. All lens-based media has this effect, a phenomenon that helps explain our species’ insatiable appetite for and fascination with images.

family birthday snapshot from the 1950s with Happy Brithday Robert spelled in large, awkward letters on the wall

Vernacular snapshot. Author unknown.

The TVTV Miami productions trigger this effect for me in the extreme. While I wasn’t in attendance at the 1972 gatherings, I have attended all but one of the Democratic and Republican national conventions since 1984 as one of the twenty thousand or so credentialed media, doing double duty as an independent media journalist working with small papers (Bay Guardian, Buffalo Art Voice, East Bay Express, Brooklyn Rail, Aperture’s Exposures, and others) and as an intermedia artist and witness, figuring out my own art + technology public digital arts and humanities practice. Over time I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with and, admittedly, partially immune to the excitement of these quadrennial gatherings, centerpieces of the theatrical spectacles that are the U.S. presidential elections. Still, as someone drawn to a crowd, and in this case one that is made up almost entirely of Type A’s who somehow clawed their way into the convention halls, I have never stopped appreciating the opportunity to be part of the event, maybe not with the homespun wide-eyed enthusiasm of “a kid turned loose in a candy store,” as CBS reporter Dan Rather proclaims to TVTV reporter Maureen Orth, but not so far from that either.

The Pictures

I have always been in the camp that asserts that people, not cameras, make/take photographs, and I have kept my distance for the most part from the endless discussion of film versus digital media. In the case, though, of 1972’s The World’s Largest TV Studio (TWLTVS) and Four More Years (4MY), the character of ½ inch open-reel videotape is undeniably an intrinsic element and player.

In the same way that I have proposed to photography students that f-stops and film stocks have distinct personalities, the image quality of the two TVTV videos is an integral, defining part of the works. (For those of you who studied photography when such things were taught, think f 1.4 vs. f 16, and Kodak Tri-X vs. Pan-X.) Even in comparison to what today would be considered sub-par standard def resolution of the three networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) that pretty much had a shared monopoly of the television airwaves, the contrast with TVTV’s convention documentaries was figuratively and literally vast.

Like a deckle-edged snapshot, the open-reel videos have a distinct object presence, made more pronounced with the passage of time and the evolution of technologies.

The videos are characterized by an at times unstable signal, middle grays that dominate the palette, haphazard lighting, and janky audio. Their seemingly informal, improvised, and spontaneous nature brings an immediacy and connection to the viewer. I see this impression reinforced by the position of the filmmakers—their views are made evident not so much by editorializing as by the choice of what is photographed and what comes out of the editing suite. The subjects—politicians, delegates, journalists, security guards, protesters, and singers—do a fine job of representing themselves. (In no small part I admire this strategy because it’s one I also use. For your consideration, a video clip from the 2016 GOP National Convention)

screen grab from The Worlds Largest TV Studio, with handwritten text on screen
screen grab from The Worlds Largest TV Studio, with handwritten text on screen

Above are examples of TVTV’s mostly handmade graphics that exemplify an essential dynamic and guiding principle of the project. TVTV’s adherence to and embrace of what would come to be known as DIY aesthetics and what the art world calls social practice are paired perfectly with the videos’ intent to claim new, less formal space in media. In a recent conversation, Chip Lord of Ant Farm, one the groups collaborating with TVTV, referred to the team as “hippies with cameras.”

The videos also celebrate a new idea of journalism and break with the supposed objectivity of the networks. Yes, in retrospect, and compared to FoxNews and MSNBC, Walter Cronkite did deliver the news objectively, assuring us that “That’s the way it is,” as many other conceptions of the status quo broke down in the sixties and early seventies. TVTV asserted the possibility of a new media landscape, one that could be more nuanced, more homegrown—as Steve Seid suggested to me, “more artisanal”—and ultimately more interesting.

Willie Brown interviewed by TVTV in The World’s Largest TV Studio

Willie Brown interviewed by TVTV in The World’s Largest TV Studio

Shirley MacLaine in The World’s Largest TV Studio

Shirley MacLaine in The World’s Largest TV Studio

The Stars

Hollywood, the entertainment world, and celebrities have always played a role in the conventions, and 1972 was no exception. TVTV’s rough footage line-up includes: Norman Mailer, Art Buchwald, Betty Friedan, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Gloria Steinem, Ed Sanders, John Wayne, Sammy Davis Jr., Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, Shirley MacLaine, Bella Abzug, first daughters Julie and Tricia Nixon, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

(And, between us, I admit to, in the past, being enough of a sap to have teared up a number of times, if with conflicting emotions, when Ray Charles sang “America the Beautiful” at the 1984 GOP Convention in Dallas, or James Taylor performed “Carolina in My Mind” at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in 2012. This year, it’s been a little different, though not without its cinematic moments. The opening of the 2020 Democratic Convention moved seamlessly from “America the Beautiful” to the national anthem, visually and adeptly showcasing the diversity of the party and the nation.)

But there are few stars and no lead roles or characters in the final TVTV productions (unless you count the hippies-with-cameras themselves). And while the filmmakers aren’t invisible, they are only occasionally front and center, unlike Michael Moore and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson who are in the spotlight of their creative non-fiction. Renowned California and San Francisco Democratic operative Willie Brown gets the most screen time in TWLTVS, the GOP Young Republicans as an ensemble in 4MY. Shirley MacLaine also gets some attention in the former. But overwhelmingly what is conveyed is a sense of collective creativity and production by a large group of unidentified young people working in a spirit of collaboration where everything is co-authored and everyone shares the credit.

I can only guess what else got left out, having so far resisted BAMPFA video curator emeritus Steve Seid’s generous offer to provide me with online access to the more than 240 hours of TVTV source footage that has been restored thanks to a preservation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. I am thrilled that scholars will have access to this invaluable resource moving forward, while noting that Steve, when making the offer, did mention “though that really opens up a can of worms.”

TVTV’s brilliant grasp of the possibilities of affordable, portable production media tools blazed a documentary trail. FCC commissioner and progressive enfant terrible Nicholas Johnson years ago spoke of a 99-percent-off sale for launching a network with the arrival of camcorders and cheap editing software. And that was before the World Wide Web and its multimedia affordances, gigabit speed, and compression schemes were ubiquitous. Between Facebook Live, YouTube Live, and Zoom, among others, a reasonably fast Internet connection and a mobile device is all you need to go live. TVTV found its principal venue in cable television and its mandatory public access channels, a requirement of the Federal licensing process now essentially obsolete.

TVTV also exudes an exuberance of youth, a confidence in their ability to create work that matters. In 1972, the antiwar movement was strong, youth culture was flexing its muscles, and a healthy distrust of the establishment and people over thirty was a sound and reasonable working concept for many living in alternative culture. As the Jefferson Airplane wrote and sang three years earlier, in 1969, in “Volunteers”:

One generation got old
One generation got soul
This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry

Underlying the project and the moment was the optimism of a movement that believed it could not only bring about change, but change that would radically transform society for the better.

Then and Now

Having never seen the conventions on television—I missed that shared national experience by actually being on site—I’m not a great candidate to comment on how or if they were different in this pandemic year. I did note and share the wistful sentiment, articulated by media personalities from NPR to Fox News especially in the first days of Democratic Convention coverage, of longing for the good old days of elbow-to-elbow in-person events.

scene from the 2016 Republican National Convention

“Convention Floor, Republican National Convention, Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Ohio,” July 21, 2016, from Power 2016: an American election. Image courtesy Jon Winet.

The 2020 conventions, largely taped in advance for simulated live broadcast, occurred in empty halls. The sacred balloon and confetti drops were replaced by fireworks in a parking lot for the Democrats, and Fourth of July–quality fireworks staged for the White House viewing area for the GOP. GOP crowds, when any, were in the hundreds. In the past, 25,000-plus delegates, guests, and media would jam into sports arenas and convention centers, stretching the patience of fire marshalls.

Perhaps forever, but most certainly in the last half-century, the conventions have been staged and scripted within an inch of their lives. I recall in 1988 seeing an organizer’s binder with that day’s activity and finding something along the lines of:

	7:01  Senator Kennedy is introduced to the Hall
	7:02–7:05  Spontaneous floor demonstration

That was a smoking-gun revelatory moment for me. And particularly in Four More Years, TVTV highlights the canned nature of the GOP Convention in interviews with reporters and anchors complaining about that already sad state of affairs.

Yet I remain convinced that despite their structured, unnatural television studio/infomercial quality, the conventions somehow manage to deliver a snapshot portrait of the country and its politics and concerns. Their infomercial nature has never been more transparent than in this quadrennial edition. Moving the speeches and delegate roll calls into virtual, empty space may well precipitate the demise of these signature political events. Or will we thirst for them in 2024? Stay tuned.

"Convention Floor, Republican National Convention, Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Ohio," July 20, 2016, from Power 2016: an American election. Image courtesy Jon Winet.

And in case you missed it: 4 More Years, how about twelve more years?

Screen shot from KENS-5 Television Station Broadcast. Image courtesy Jon Winet.

Fashion Meets Fascism

Leni Riefenstahl among other Nazis in uniform

Leni Riefenstahl, dressed in a Wehrmacht uniform, during her brief stint as a war correspondent covering Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 (public domain).

Melania Trump addresses a crowd from a podium

First lady Melania Trump speaks on the second day of the Republican National Convention from the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in Washington.” (Evan Vucci/AP)

First Lady Melania Trump, ever fashion savvy, delivered her convention speech in the White House Rose Garden in an outfit that looked remarkably like a WWII German military uniform, scarily similar to Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s outfit in the above P.R. photo. The Internet picked up on the connection. There have been a number of articles that connect the dots between President Trump’s calculated portrayal of himself and the White House and the German filmmaker’s lionizing of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Performance for an Audience of One?

And then there’s this:

meme comparing Kimberly Guilfoyle to sreaming Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Kimberly Guilfoyle/Nazi fromRaiders of the Lost Ark meme. August 24, 2020. Author unknown.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, current girlfriend of Donald J. Trump Jr., delivered an over-the-top, dialed up to eleven speech on the first night of the convention in the distinctly grand Neoclassical Mellon Auditorium (below). Her off-the-charts face-melting performance, which inspired the Raiders of the Lost Ark reaction shot meme (above) published on Twitter, is initially surprising as she is an accomplished, professional television personality and understands how to perform for the camera. One MSNBC panelist opined that she was perhaps playing exclusively for an audience of one. Another retorted that perhaps that number should be two. Progressive late night host Stephen Colbert, among others, took note, going so far as to crown her “Miss Fascism 2020.”

empty hall during 2020 Republican convention

The Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, screen shot from “The best, worst and weirdest moments of Night 1,” August 25, 2020, Politico. Image by Steven Shepard.

Bonus Tracks

Spin (Brian Springer, 1995)

By comparison to TVTV’s 1972 outings, Brian Springer’s brilliant 1995 Spin, covering the 1992 presidential candidates and contemporary events, reveals a much greater sense of sophistication in terms of both the filmmaker and the subjects—but, in the case of the subjects, not so much that there aren’t a plethora of inspired moments of revelation.

Al Gore getting makeup applied during 1992 presidential campaign

Spin, Al Gore screenshot.

Eschewing the on-the-ground field research and recording at the cornerstone of most documentary filmmaking, Spin is a compellingly assembled collage made exclusively of appropriated footage taped from multiple satellite dishes set up on the roof of the artist-filmmaker’s studio. The result is revealing with its candid moments with candidates, pundits, and media personalities, so used to living much of their lives in a television studio that they forget they are on camera, or that anyone is watching.

Unlike the sanitized version of footage of candidates we are accustomed to seeing in media, free of pops and scratches, ums and gaffes, Spin zeroes in on inappropriate, embarrassing, and revealing remarks and actions made by the film’s amateur actors. A colleague reviewing an earlier draft of this essay notes: “There’s a kind of collusion in which the media ‘protects us’ from these revelations. Spin dissects the unadulterated raw feed—the ongoing, unaltered feed, direct from the cameras to the network.” I add that this prophylactic issue is one that journalists constantly deal with, or should. National Public Radio is party to this practice and we discover in its mediaverse people, including politicians, are supremely articulate and highly unlikely to be heard uttering “you know,” “kind of,” and “like.”

As something of a mismatched bookend, at the 17:30 minute or so mark of The World’s Largest TV Studio, Willie Brown explains away the presence of the TVTV reporters at a strategy session regarding an anticipated convention floor fight over the seating of the California delegation: “Ignore all the microphones and the cameras, that’s experimental cable TV process out of San Francisco and these are all brand new people doing things and what have you and it has no relevance to any publication for at least a two or three week period, so don’t even worry about it.” Talk about hiding in plain sight.

While the production strategies of the TVTV videos and Spin are at opposite ends of the interventional spectrum, they both share a fundamental guerrilla stance in relation to their subjects and to mainstream culture. Both take us inside the perimeter of power and politics.

Spin is available at these links.

Feed (Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway, 1992)

Kevin Rafferty, best known for Atomic Café, and codirector James Ridgeway take on the 1992 New Hampshire primary campaigns, often using the very same source footage as we’ve seen in Springer’s Spin. In fact, Springer is credited for the “Satellite backhaul,” i.e., the interception and supply of the raw network feed. Where Spin spends more time looking at the televisual gestures and language of mass media, Feed digs into the superficial nature of political posturing. Here, even the “authentic” and the “truthful” are just a prepped staging of sincerity, preferably with each candid blemish cosmetically removed.

Feed is available at these links.

Additional reading | multimedia texts

FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson
reprinted on Mr. Johnson’s website

The Washington Lawyer
May/June 1999, pp. 6–7
“Where Are They Now?”
Reporter’s Notebook
By John Greenya
Copyright 1999 The District of Columbia Bar

New York Review of Books
“Fascinating Fascism” (1974)
By Susan Sontag

NPR Training
November 12, 2019
“How to decide what to cut (or not) in an interview”
By Jerome Socolovksy

The Take
July 15, 2010
“The Year Video Art Was Born”
By Hanne Mugaas

silhouette of camera operator against large LED screen

“Democratic National Convention, Wells Fargo Arena, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” July 25, 2016, from Power 2016: an American election. Image courtesy Jon Winet.

newscaster faces a bank of cameras and lights during Democratic National Convention

“Nomination Acceptance Speech, Democratic National Convention, Wells Fargo Arena, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” July 28, 2016, from Power 2016: an American election. Image courtesy Jon Winet.

newscasters and camera operators at the 2016 Democratic National Convention

“Democratic National Convention, Wells Fargo Arena, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” July 28, 2016, from Power 2016: an American election. Image courtesy Jon Winet.

news crews waiting and watching a screen during the 2016 Democratic National Convention

“Democratic National Convention, Wells Fargo Arena, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” July 28, 2016, from Power 2016: an American election. Image courtesy Jon Winet.

news team prepares for a shoot in a dark studio during the 2016 Democratic National Convention

From Power 2016: an American election. Image courtesy Jon Winet.

Jon Winet

Jon Winet is an intermedia artist and scholar active in exploring artists' relationship to politics and social change. Before returning to Berkeley this year, he was a professor in the University of Iowa School of Art & Art History, heading the Intermedia Program.

He has maintained ongoing multimedia work engaging with presidential conventions and the theatrical spectacle of U.S. presidential elections for decades. He is currently directing "Oxford to the Ballot Box" in Oxford, Mississippi.