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University of California
Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

The Eternal Return of Video Innovation

by Deirdre Boyle

Deirdre Boyle has been a historian, critic, and teacher of media studies since becoming immersed in the world of underground video in the 1960s and 70s. Here she reflects on what guerrilla television and the work of groups like TVTV mean to current generations of media agitators.

I teach an online writing course for graduate media studies students. In search of a new film for them to criticize during the pandemic, I found Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 streaming on Netflix, and I asked them to write a brief review. Few of them liked the film. Some noted it was nowhere near as interesting as the Black Lives Matter movement. They also didn’t like the characters of Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden and found the attention given to Bobby Seale inadequate. It was a strange experience to read about this history through the eyes of people unfamiliar with the events depicted in the film. I remember the 1968 Chicago convention, the police assassination of Fred Hampton, the hijinks of yippies like Hoffman and antiwar protests led by Hayden, and the stunning verdict in the courtroom when William Kunstler failed to get justice from a corrupt judge. I knew about this because I lived it vicariously watching tapes made by video pioneers who recorded the real story, not the one the mass media framed according to its own agendas. That was when I first realized the power of this alternative medium to help remedy the faults and omissions of Big Media like television.

newspaper clipping from review of TVTV program In Hiding

Abbie Hoffman in TVTV's controversial interview with the fugitive Yippie, In Hiding (1975), which aired briefly on WNET public television.

I started writing about video then, fascinated by its avant-garde experiments and progressive views. Eventually, I wrote a book titled Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited, a chronicle of those early years when the first 1/2-inch video equipment allowed the first television generation the means to challenge the hegemony of broadcast TV. Video seemed to provide ordinary people with the means to speak up, express their thoughts, create amazing electronic art, and lobby for social and political change. It was seen as inherently democratic, affordable, and accessible—no training was required, no union card necessary, no qualifications expected. Portable video offered average folks the means of production but, sadly, not the means of distribution. Public television initially showcased novel videotapes, and cable company contracts mandated delivery of community-made programs. The future seemed so hopeful. But local network TV affiliates, public television stations, and cable TV scaled back their openness to independently made video when controversies arose over program content and legal requirements for cable TV were relaxed.

There was another way of getting video to viewers. Half-inch videotapes initially were “bicycled” from one media center to another to be screened on large television monitors to a select audience of insiders. But this was a very limited method for sharing programming. Better opportunities for distribution emerged with the introduction of video cassettes in the late seventies, but the home video boom profited only the highly marketed movie industry and came to an end in the nineties.

Few people today know much about this history of early video and practitioners determined to use it to document protests, celebrate difference, support the marginalized, cry out for justice, and invent new styles of comedy and performance. Their goals were doomed to fail, but that didn’t stop them from valiantly trying to make a difference using the medium they loved and exploited with abandon. By the time analog video ceased to be "new," the twenty-first century had embraced an array of "new media" technologies—personal computers, smartphones, internet-driven platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and the like. With them came digital video, which replaced analog video and rendered film and video interchangeable terms instead of intense competitors. Everything now is digital. And the history of video that preceded it has been largely forgotten despite the indefatigable efforts of video heralds like Skip Blumberg who have labored hard to keep this history from being buried as a mere footnote to film.

image of a presidential convention delegate on a video monitor

A delegate for Southern Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace watches an interview TVTV taped with her moments earlier, a novel experience in 1972. From The World's Largest TV Studio (1972).

Surprisingly, the new "new media" have made many of the earlier dreams of a democratic video medium reality today. Consider this: the number of people who own a mobile phone today is 4.78 billion, or 61.54 percent of the world’s population. Smart phones are arguably the most democratic medium around and the most ubiquitous, even in countries where people without electricity use battery-powered media to communicate with the wider world. No longer must we carry a 24-pound portapak and camera to capture reality; now we can reach into our back pocket for a smartphone, shoot what is before us, and if we are connected to the internet, broadcast our views to millions within seconds. Distribution and production are no longer obstacles to democratic expression. And no one needs training to become a witness to history. How many protests of the past year have depended upon the rapid response of bystanders with a cell phone, a sharp eye, and access to an internet platform that can be viewed instantly by billions. What the early video pioneers hoped would become the transformative power of video has been realized and then some. Of course, not all the results of new media can be counted as positive, as we know from the terrifying impact of disinformation, hate speech, espionage hacking, and cyberbullying made available by new media and the companies and countries that profit from them. Every communication innovation brings with it possibilities for both good and evil.

nude man demonstrates a portapak

Michael Shamberg demonstrates a Sony Portapak in his book, Guerrilla Television.

Early video history has yet to inspire today’s media innovators if my beloved students’ tenuous grasp on history is any indication. For them, portable video is like the 1968 convention, a distant, misunderstood chapter from a past vaguely relevant to the present and the future. But whether they know it or not, they are nonetheless reliant on the daring of the first generation to use video. Curiously, it was at the 1968 presidential nominating convention explored in Sorkin’s film that Michael Shamberg, who was covering the event for a Chicago newspaper, realized that portable video could bypass the limitations imposed by corporate media agendas. In 1970 he wrote Guerrilla Television, the video movement’s bible, which outlined how 1/2-inch video could become a democratic medium of, by, and for the people. Witnessing those bloody Chicago events and their aftermath led Shamberg to band together with friends like Allen Rucker and Megan Williams to forge a group ironically named TVTV—Top Value Television—to document the 1972 conventions in Miami. The World’s Largest TV Studio and Four More Years would set a high bar for innovative documentary video for years to come. These two feature-length tapes demonstrated the power of this new medium to inform, entertain, and reengineer the public’s expectations about information. Big Television would never be the same.

Of the two videotapes, the first is perhaps the most amazing for TVTV’s ability to capture the chaotic experience of a Democratic convention unfolding in all its anarchic madness. TVTV was also flailing about, figuring out how to make a tape for the first time. By the time the Republicans arrived in Miami, with their buttoned-up arrogance and tight organization, TVTV had discovered what its signature style would be. Essential was their focus on the media covering the convention, a first time for "navel-gazing" conducted in public by reporters and anchors of network news. Also important was their use of graphics to insert a sarcastic nonverbal commentary that allowed their ideas to filter into what was on screen. And paramount was the interaction of TVTV’s crews, who not only interviewed politicians and celebrity newsmen (and one woman) but each other, providing a witty running commentary on the events unfolding. The Republican convention afforded a more orderly structure for Four More Years, a comparison between the conservative delegates to the convention and the protesting Vietnam Veterans Against the War outside it. This tape would outdo the networks at their own game and receive plaudits from print and nonprint media. But for aficionados of early video, it was in The World’s Largest TV Studio that TVTV’s manic energy and sophisticated grasp of the backstage politics at a convention was best displayed. No one saw a convention like TVTV did, demonstrating that guerrilla television was the wave of the future and would in time become the norm, absorbed into network models that transformed TVTV’s innovations into something imitative and derivative.

page from TVTV's production scrapbook for The World's Largest TV Studio

A page from TVTV's scrapbook made during the production of The World's Largest TV Studio (1972).

It took a lot more time than anyone expected for new media to create an alternative, youth-oriented, politically progressive movement. It was only when new technologies were within the reach of everyone that transformational change would occur. But the seeds of that change were sown by innovators like TVTV and by their historic confrontations with media power structures determined to maintain the status quo. It demanded the courage, commitment, and creativity of people willing to stand up for another kind of media, another vision of reality, another force for change. And it also needed the winds of time to favor that noble enterprise. The past matters too.

Deirdre Boyle

Deirdre Boyle is the author of Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (1997), a definitive history of the artistic and political scene that fostered groups like TVTV and the Videofreex She is a professor of media studies at the New School in New York City and writes frequently for scholarly film and media journals including Film Quarterly and Afterimage.