Talking Back to TV

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.

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