activists outlined their plan to decentralize television so that
the medium could be made by as well as for the people, in the pages
of Radical Software and in the alternative movement's 1971
manifesto, Guerrilla Television, written by Michael Shamberg
and Raindance Corporation,. These "alternative media guerrillas"
were determined to use video to create an alternative to the aesthetically
bankrupt and commercially corrupt broadcast medium.
Earlier in the
1960s various versions of "the underground"--alternative political
movements, cultural revolutionaries, artists--began to search for
new ways of reaching their audience. Cable television and the videocassette
seemed to offer an answer. The movement was assisted, perhaps inadvertently,
by federal rules mandating local origination programming and public
access channels for most cable systems. These channels provided
a forum for broadcasting community-driven production. The newly
developed videocassette allowed independent media producers to create
an informal distribution system in which they could "bicycle" their
tapes--carrying them by hand or delivering them by mail--to other
outlets throughout the country, or even the world.
These new forms
of exhibition and distribution were accompanied by the development
of a portable consumer-grade taping system. In 1965 the Sony Corporation
decided to launch its first major effort at marketing consumer video
equipment in the United States. The first machines were quite cumbersome,
but in 1968 Sony introduced the first truly portable video rig--the
half-inch, reel to reel CV Porta-Pak. Prior to this, videotape equipment
was cumbersome, stationary, complex, and expensive, even though
it had been used commercially since 1956. With the new international
standard for 1/2" videotape, tapes made with one manufacturer's
portable video equipment could be played back on competing manufacturer's
equipment. In the hands of media activists these technological innovations
were used to realize radical changes in program form and content.
video groups appeared throughout the U.S., but New York City served
as the hub of the 1960s underground scene. Prominent early groups
included the Videofreex, People's Video Theater, Global Village,
and Raindance Corporation. Self-described as "an innovative group
concerned with the uses of video," Videofreex was the most production-oriented
of the video groups and developed a high expertise with television
hardware. In 1973 the Videofreex published a user-friendly guide
to use, repair and maintenance of equipment titled the Spaghetti
City Video Manual. The People's Video Theater made significant
breakthroughs in community media; members used live and taped feedback
of embattled community groups to create mini-documentaries that
"spoke back to the news." The Global Village was perhaps the most
commercial of the original groups, and initiated the first closed-circuit
video theater to showcase their work. Raindance Corporation functioned
as the counter-culture's research and development arm; Shamberg
described it as an "analogue to the Rand Corporation--a think tank
that would use videotape instead of print." Raindance chronicled
the movement by publishing Radical Software, underground
video's chief information source and networking tool.
Top Value Television,
one of the earliest ad hoc group of video makers, assembled
in 1972 to cover political conventions for cable TV. Equipped with
porta-paks, TVTV produced hour-long documentary tapes of the Democratic
and Republican National Conventions, providing national viewers
with an alternative vision of the American political process and
the media that cover it. Four More Years (1972), a tape covering
the Republican National Convention, was produced with a crew of
19, and featured footage of delegate caucuses, Young Republican
rallies, cocktail parties, antiwar demonstrations, and interviews
with the press from the convention floor. TVTV's success with its
first two documentaries for cable television attracted the interest
of public television and the group became the first group commissioned
to produce work for national broadcast on public TV. In 1974, shortly
after TVTV introduced national audiences to guerrilla TV, the first
all-color portable video documentary was produced by the Downtown
Community Television Center (DCTV) and aired on PBS.
In 1981, the
Paper Tiger Television Collective formed--a changing group of people
that came together to produce cable programming for the public access
channel in New York City. Drawing upon the traditions of radical
video, Paper Tiger Television invented its own home-grown studio
aesthetic using rather modest resources to make revolutionary television.
Many of Paper Tiger's half-hour programs are live studio "events,"
faintly reminiscent of 1960s video "happenings." The show's hosts
are articulate critics of mainstream American media who examine
the corporate ownership, hidden agendas, and information biases
of the communications industry via the media in all of their forms.
Paper Tiger Television
Photo courtesy of Paper Tiger
courtesy of Paper TIger
1986, Paper Tiger organized Deep Dish TV, the country's first
alternative satellite network, to distribute its public access
series to participating cable systems and public television stations
around the country. The successful syndication of this anthology
of community-made programs on issues such as labor, housing, the
farming crisis, and racism promised a new era for alternative
a similar agenda, The 90's Channel first began "shattering the
limits of conventional TV" in 1989 as a PBS television show, and
has since established an "independent cable network" carrying
blocks of activist programming on leased access over a number
of cable systems owned by Telecommunications, Inc. (TCI), while
also bicycling its programs to public access channels and universities
around the country. The 90's Channel programming (now known as
Free Speech TV) is a compilation of activist, community-based
and experimental media produced by independent film and video
media are oriented towards action, not contemplation--towards
the present, not tradition. Politically integrated opposition
against mainstream broadcast television by marginalized groups
has considered the form, content, and regulatory structures of
the medium. As a mode of activism, television may be used as a
occasion for media analysis and intervention, as a pathway for
the exchange of information, as well as a vehicle for securing
representation for those groups otherwise marginalized from the
media. The ultimate goal of committed alternative video groups,
however, is to secure universal access to the tools of production
and the channels for distribution and exhibition. For these reasons,
community-based programming has not simply followed the lead of
network television, but rather served as a forum for envisioning
the future of the medium.
Mindy, editor. A Tool, A Weapon, A Witness: The New Video News
Crews. Chicago: Randolph Street Gallery, 1990.
Kim. The Barefoot Channel. Vancouver: North Star, 1990.
Doug, and Sally Jo Fifer, editors. Illuminating Video: An Essential
Guide to Video Art. New York: Aperture Foundation, Inc., 1990.
Douglas, and Diane Neumaier, editors. Cultures in Contention.
Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1985.
The Paper Tiger Television Guide to Media Activism. New York:
The Paper Tiger Television Collective, 1991.
Shamberg and Raindance Corporation. Guerrilla Television.
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
The Spaghetti City Video Manual: A Guide to Use, Repair and
Maintenance. New York: Praeger, 1973.