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

The Prime Time Survey

The Prime Time Survey was TVTV's report on the state of video in 1974 after spending over two years on collective productions—a manual, but also a vision for the future

“In the beginning there was the Portapak.” So begins The Prime Time Survey, TVTV’s clearest expression of its mission and ethos at the height of its productivity and ambition. This is also the beginning of almost every other history of video art and guerrilla television, taking the Sony Portapak as the epitome of artistic freedom and radical technological possibilities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The tone quickly shifts, though, to chiding artists and critics who valued the new portable video equipment as an end in itself. The tools of guerrilla video wielded by inept producers would be worthless as much as video art that navel-gazes into the camera would become “electronic wallpaper.”

If the 1971 Guerrilla Television booklet was a starry-eyed manifesto full of [McLuhan-isms]( shrouded in dope smoke, The Prime Time Survey finds the same radicals all grown up, less enthralled with portable video itself changing society, but deeply engaged with the practicalities of making videos that people in a society would want to watch—and perhaps be changed by. For TVTV, the project that culminated in this book "is geared towards an activist approach to changing TV, not an abstract overview of what it should be like." By 1974, new developments in video technology were coming every few months, including color (!), lighter equipment, and more competitors to the venerable Sony unit that had become a fetish object for video scenesters in the previous six years.

a page from TVTV's Prime Time Survey booklet

TVTV tackles the state of the art in camera gear circa 1974, but they also detail the equipment and processes that go into the other 90% of a production—editing procedures; dubbing masters to 2-inch quad; time base correctors (also here and here) and proc amps; and also how to get your work actually seen by other humans on actual TV screens. The initial excitement surrounding the Portapak between 1967-1974 as a new, inherently democratic technology (though there is a deep conversation to be had about how accessible and how democratic this technology really was) “has now given way to generating an awareness of precisely how it can be used to expand people’s perceptions of what is important to know and what kind of entertainment enhances awareness instead of numbing it.”

TVTV lays out these practicalities as a guide, and also as a vision for how other artists and radicals could make radical tapes in a sustainable and genuinely effective way. Probably the most valuable element of the book is the section that details step by step how TVTV produced their 1973 tape, Adland. They go over preproduction, budgeting, location shooting, editing, and distribution explaining what worked, what didn’t, and how these decisions impacted their future plans. Again, where Guerrilla Television is an exciting potpourri of what-ifs, The Prime Time Survey provides a hearty mixture of how-tos, and also whys.

The book ends, of course, with a vision for the future, beginning with a rip-roaring “proposal” for TV2000, a sci-fi future-history of TV complete with “video guerrillas” on the run from the “FCC police” and a cryogenically resurrected Walt Disney. More presciently, predicting reality TV and social media, TV2000 concludes with a vision of a future when “news teams will actually live their lives at real events and their personal lives will become part of the shows like soap operas. Video entertainment troops will live in homelike TV studios. . . where they will obliterate the line between private and media life and produce weekly shows.”

Almost as an afterthought, the last page of the book is a quite reasonable and also prescient proposal for a television satellite ("there will be at least four domestic communications satellites in operation by 1976") to be dedicated to public broadcasting interests. Among the proposals are a transnational town hall, and transmissions to link communities with shared interests, or to connect rural and urban citizens. These possibilities have been fulfilled with a slightly different flavor by social media and the internet more broadly, but today's "information radicals" tend more towards an interest in venture capital than empowering an informed citizenry. As dated as the technical guidelines in The Prime Time Survey may be, the core message of using new technology as a means to a transformational end remains as relevant (and as necessary) as ever.

Access The Prime Time Survey via the UC Berkeley Library here.

a page from TVTV's Prime Time Survey booklet