Why hasn't the camcorder revolution bred a participatory television system where ordinary people can both watch AND program their own shows? Probably for the same reasons that the ubiquitous Brown Box Brownie and other types of cameras failed to expand media production beyond the hands of corporate monopolies. As Patricia Zimmerman shows in her new book Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film, Hollywood, the popular media, and technical how-to guides all helped curb the radical potential of home movie-making by labeling it 'amateur' and relegating it to private, domestic use.
Despite similar obstacles facing the camcorder, new possibilities for homegrown TV are expanding. As Pat Aufderheide writes in Columbia Journalism Review (May/June 1995), small-format video is cropping up time and again in public television programs like The Ride, a show where 'six teenagers from different ethnic backgrounds pile into a van, recording their encounters with dope, death, and other young people.'
Ellen Schneider, producer of public TV's P.O.V. (Point of View), is developing a new show called E.C.U. (Extreme Close Up) that will showcase first-person video diaries from 'unsung America.' In sharp contrast to the heavily edited amateur segments that appear on shows like America's Funniest Home Videos, the emerging video-diary genre provides an entry point to independent production, and opens up the relationship between the personal and the political. One woman who participated in an E.C.U. training seminar is filming her struggle with DES-related cancer; another, a lesbian, is using the camera to re-establish a relationship with her father, a militant right-wing activist who denounces homosexuality.
Another good sign is MTV's News Unfiltered, a new public affairs program that encourages viewers to pitch stories and then help plan and shoot them. As with the video-diary genre, the news stories emerge from the personal lives of the viewer-producers: A recent episode featured a Penn State woman's crusade against sexual harassment on campus, a young father's struggle with discrimination, and a man who attended college graduation in drag.
Some media gatekeepers are already worried that video diaries and personal camcorder journalism will erode journalistic standards of professionalism and objectivity. Considering the unrequited potential of amateur media over the past 100 years, it's about time.
Original to Utne Reader Online, August 1995.
Pat Aufderheide, 'Vernacular Video,' COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW, Jan/Feb 1995.