The early ’70s gave birth to techno-triplicates crying to democratize television. The portable videotape recorder, coaxial cable, and a fuzzy idea of democracy formed the eye, legs and mindset of an infant revolution. The first offered everyone a way to make television programs. The second offered dozens of new TV channels on which to show them. The third saw TV potential through rose-tinted prismatic glasses.
The thought of combining the first two innovations charged the imaginations of media-savvy activists, and self-appointed enlighteners of mankind. Behind them marched sympathetic educators, artists, sometimes even psychologists. They pushed an idea then, not money; the business people came later.
Many of these–some called themselves students of the media, others “vidiots,” and an unwashed few “video freaks”–set out with no formal training in television production. Many watched no TV themselves. They did not tape their kids, either. They wouldn’t waste video’s awesome power for social change in that way. You know the type.
They did, however, feel that television powerfully shapes the opinions and values of its audience. They wanted to push aside the medium’s power elite so that they could control that shaping themselves. Out with televised Establishment values, in with televised anti-establishment values. Right? Right on. And they often acted as though there was only one alternative vision to the ruling elite’s.
They said: tomorrow we all will use a TV camera as easily as we use pens today, and channel time like we use paper. All people will write messages with their video pens and mail them to others through one or another of the bountiful cable channels. Each will take the tremendous power of TV into his own hands. No excuse will remain for the tight-fisted controlby the established Establishment, oh yeahof this medium.
In their souls, however, a voice whispered, “With the television establishment out of the way, we’ll establish the anti-establishment.”
Let’s face it: many hirsute video “democrats” towed hidden agendas. They wanted everyone’s face on TV as much as the Magna Carta wanted voting rights for peasants. Rather, they really wanted the avant garde of the 60s and 70s to get their mouths on this persuasive medium. Please don’t mis-understand. It seemed a good idea at the time, given their age, their ideals and the persistence of The Partridge Family.
Nevertheless, like communists in Tsarist Russia, they used the abuses of the television empire to justify their own. It works not; we all know how two wrongs add up. They were wrong; so was the empire.
Still, they said more than they meant. They said, “Everyone can now use television.” What if we took that “everyone” to really mean everyone? Most of what we’d see would look neither like the Partridge Family’s idea of life nor like Mapplethorpe’s. It would look more like regular people, like it or not. The less popular viewpoints would remain, but they would take up less channel time than popular viewpoints. Against the background of true populist TV even standard Hollywood movies might seem off-center, forced, unrealistic.
You can get and use a camcorder today easier than you could the porta-paks of yesteryear. 500 channel fiber optic cable will replace 30-channel coaxial. Video freaks, if you’re still out there: take off the tinted glasses. Look video democracy square in the eye. If we ever get it, the real thing will look far more familiar than you think.
Stephen Murtore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.