We take it for granted today that technology has made it possible for essentially anyone to become a journalist at the drop of a hat. Most of us have all the necessary documentation equipment in our back pocket. For many, it can be difficult to conceive of a time when there were only a few television networks, rigidly controlled by their owners, restricting what viewers could and could not see. The bridge between that time and the contemporary era of vital, individualized on-the-ground reporting was formed by the independent news operations that emerged in the early 1970s. Counterculture groups became empowered by advances in technology which offered cheaper, easier-to-use cameras and other equipment, allowing them to present an alternate perspective on contemporary events.
One of the earliest and most important of these groups was Top Value Television (TVTV), a collective founded in San Francisco which was active from 1972 to 1979. During that time, they produced numerous independent documentaries, often by bringing their cameras to major events. TVTV’s vast catalog of raw footage and other materials has long been kept in the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). Now, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, BAMPFA has digitized hundreds of hours of the footage, and the archive is making it freely available through a new online database, Preserving Guerrilla Television.
Megan Williams, one of the founding members of TVTV, spoke to Hyperallergic via email about her experiences with the group. Among other things, she explained the steep learning curve they faced: “Initially, because of the technical challenges of the portable equipment, expectations were low. But soon, groups using the new Sony Portapak started popping up around the country and information was shared. Artists played with the electronics, community organizers used it to give people a voice, and a group of us formed TVTV to bring our 20-something perspective to mass media. Our first project was to cover the 1972 Democratic and Republican national conventions. Truly a ‘Go big or go home’ moment!”
That summer resulted in two expansive documentaries: the DNC became The World’s Largest TV Studio, while the RNC was the subject of Four More Years. Over the rest of the decade, TVTV produced more documentaries on everything from the Super Bowl to the Oscars to the Ford administration. Despite the acclaim their work received, Williams explained how it was a challenge to secure distribution for their programs, which ultimately led to TVTV’s dissolution: “Options were few, and by the end of the ’70s, we had not been able to monetize our work at a level that enabled us to survive and support our growing families.”
Inspired just as much by the Bay Area experimental film scene as by gonzo journalists like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, these self-proclaimed “video freaks,” or “freex,” brought a radical first-person perspective to the news that stood in stark contrast to the officious reporting of the major television networks. Williams remembers, “There was some pushback and condescension, but in general, mainstream journalists recognized that our mobility and alternative perspective represented the future of television. Consequently, they cheered us on, perhaps with a bit of envy. TV critics penned nice reviews. We did get criticized by some muckety-mucks, but were embraced by most.”
Still, the experience proved invaluable for the “freex.” Co-founder Michael Shamberg became a prolific Hollywood producer, Chip Lord and several others created the alternative media collective Ant Farm, and Williams teaches at the University of Southern California and has become an Oscar-nominated producer of documentaries. Reflecting on the time, she says, “It’s important to note that we were young, learning from each other, trusting each other with our work. Everyone was paid the same small stipend. And while the networks were white male enclaves, at TVTV, women did every job, from shooting to sound recording to editing. There was little if any hierarchy. Even today, I do not believe in strict auteur filmmaking. By definition, there are too many variables and meaningful contributions by others.”
BAMPFA has made TVTV’s work available at an opportune time, as we are in the midst of another election year and another set of national party conventions — although they look very different than the ones of 1972, both in terms of their setup and the politics at play. Williams reminisces about one of her favorite moments from the 1972 RNC in Miami Beach: “Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic was barred from getting on the convention floor to protest the war. We gave him one of our press passes and he was able to get up. In our final show, the editing is beyond brilliant, cutting between Ron shouting to stop the killing and Henry Kissinger smiling down at his son while celebratory balloons rain down. Seventeen years later, Oliver Stone replicated this scene in Born on the Fourth of July.“
Today, journalists face their own challenges from institutions, which Williams finds disturbing: “I am deeply offended by attacks on our media, and especially by acts of violence against our members. A free press is a basic tenet of our democracy, and must be protected.”