ACTIVIST TELEVISION

Artists and 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.

Underground 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


Paper Tiger Television
Photo courtesy of Paper TIger

In 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 documentary production.

With 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 makers.

Activist 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.

-Eric Freedman

FURTHER READING

Fabaer, Mindy, editor. A Tool, A Weapon, A Witness: The New Video News Crews. Chicago: Randolph Street Gallery, 1990.

Goldberg, Kim. The Barefoot Channel. Vancouver: North Star, 1990.

Hall, Doug, and Sally Jo Fifer, editors. Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art. New York: Aperture Foundation, Inc., 1990.

Kahn, Douglas, and Diane Neumaier, editors. Cultures in Contention. Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1985.

Roar! The Paper Tiger Television Guide to Media Activism. New York: The Paper Tiger Television Collective, 1991.

Michael Shamberg and Raindance Corporation. Guerrilla Television. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Videofreex. The Spaghetti City Video Manual: A Guide to Use, Repair and Maintenance. New York: Praeger, 1973.