How SF ‘Video Freaks’ Infiltrated the 1972 Democratic National Convention

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Willie Brown at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Top Value Television's 'The World's Largest TV Studio.' (Courtesy TVTV and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California, Berkeley)

On the floor of a very different Democratic National Convention—this one in the Miami Convention Center, packed with maskless people, glad-handing everywhere—Top Value Television (TVTV) trained its video cameras on the in-between moments of a political spectacle. It was 1972, and a scrappy group of “video freaks” from San Francisco wanted to change the way television was made.

With 28 press passes in hand, the fledgling group shot hundreds of hours of footage at the DNC and RNC, which took place at the same venue just a month later. TVTV captured official votes and speeches, but also backroom discussions, Miami sightseeing, Newsweek interviewing them poolside, and, most notably, interactions with network television crews.

The official results of this new journalism endeavor were two hour-long, scrapbook-like documentaries, The World’s Largest TV Studio (about the DNC) and Four More Years (its RNC companion), initially screened on select cable channels and later available via video distribution services, or more recently, online.

Approximately half the TVTV crew from the 1972 Convention tapes with the TVTV media van in Miami. (Courtesy TVTV and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California, Berkeley)

But now, for the first time, the whole of that raw footage—in-between the in-between moments—will be available to the public at “Preserving Guerrilla Television” and soon, the Internet Archive, the result of a National Endowment for Humanities grant to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The newly digitized video captures what local archivist, filmmaker and educator Rick Prelinger calls “the flavor of TVTV’s work.” The raw footage contains extended “raps” by protesters and delegates, casual interviews with people who would become political heavyweights (a young John Lewis!), and a very real sense of Americans’ thoughts and concerns during a pivotal year.

A grant of $220,537 allowed BAMPFA to digitize 437 analog videos related to three TVTV projects: the two convention docs and Gerald Ford’s America, which shows the videomakers embedded in another spectacle, the first hundred days of Ford’s presidency after Nixon’s 1974 resignation. The grant also paid for scanning and photographing thousands of pages of paperwork, press clippings, scrapbooks and other TVTV ephemera.

A TVTV poster promoting their 1972 convention documentaries. (Courtesy TVTV and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California, Berkeley)

It’s the culmination (in part) of a project that traces its roots back to a 2004 Ant Farm retrospective at BAMPFA, co-organized by then-video curator Steve Seid. (The Ant Farm and TVTV collectives shared members.) I specify “in part” because according to Michael Campos-Quinn, director of library special projects at BAMPFA’s Film Library and Study Center, this digitization project is “just the tip of the iceberg.” They actually have thousands of TVTV tapes, not to mention the work of other Bay Area video collectives.

“It’s so incredibly expensive to digitize the kind of tape that these are on,” Campos-Quinn explains. The videos are on half-inch open-reel tapes, one of the first portable videotape formats available to consumers in the late ’60s. With (relatively light) equipment like the Sony Portapak, guerrilla video groups could move nimbly through crowds, and produce media for a fraction of what the major networks spent covering the same event.


“It was basically a game changer in terms of how people were able to document themselves and document their own reality,” Campos-Quinn says. “But the tape itself is a consumer product and it’s just fundamentally unstable. We’re at the point now where the tapes are starting to degrade past the point of being able to play them.”

“Long story short, we have thousands of tapes that are in dire need of transfer,” he says. Even the equipment needed to play TVTV’s tapes is super rare; BAMPFA worked with a Pennsylvania company called The MediaPreserve to digitize this collection.

TVTV interviews a tired Walter Cronkite in the aftermath of the 1972 Democratic National Convention. (Courtesy TVTV and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California, Berkeley)

Knowledge of this scarcity—and this precarity—makes what is now digitized all the more engaging. When the collective disbanded in 1977, many of TVTV’s members went on to impressive careers in Hollywood, documentary filmmaking and the art world. But in the early 1970s, Michael Shamberg, Allen Rucker, Megan Williams, Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels (among others) were eager 20-somethings, full of ideas about the potential of television and eager to put them to the test.

They believed the type of equipment they used determined, in part, the type of information they’d be able to gather. They wanted to create “special purpose media,” not mass media, and provide a space for people express their own views. And they went about their project methodically, designing letterhead, raising funds from various foundations and commercial enterprises, and selling shares when that failed. In the 1974 report Prime Time Survey, TVTV laid out their philosophy about opening up television, emphasizing their desire to figure things out through making, not just theorizing. “Projects are the best prophecies,” they wrote.

Their countercultural approach becomes most visible in the scrapbooks compiled while making The World’s Largest TV Studio and Four More Years: the group parties in their Miami rental with nitrous oxide; the male members of TVTV are often shirtless; collages lampoon Nixon and then-California governor Ronald Reagan.

TVTV videomakers enjoy an ice cream. (Courtesy TVTV and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California, Berkeley)

Breaking what were then the rules of nonfiction television, the artists of TVTV became characters in their own documentary, annotating scenes with both hand-written notes and staged commentary. After one particularly confusing speech at the DNC by delegate Willie Brown, a TVTV member leans into the frame to ask, “Did you understand that?”

The fact that they weren’t part of the “straight” media certainly facilitated some interactions, even if it hindered them in others (in The World’s Largest TV Studio, the Secret Service is deeply skeptical of their press credentials). In raw footage from the RNC, a group of Vietnam Veterans Against the War joke they won’t let a TV crew through unless their cameraman has long hair. TVTV’s very unobtrusiveness means people just keep talking—about the Women’s Movement, the Vietnam War, or the eeriness of organized groups of Young Republicans.

One of those candid conversations captures John Lewis (then executive director of the Voter Education Project) and civil rights activist Tom Houck (then associate director of the Youth Citizenship Fund) at the RNC. Lewis expresses sadness at the sight of young people with “no sense of independence or spontaneity” supporting “something so out of date and obsolete” as the Republican platform.

In another clip, following a gathering of the National Women’s Political Caucus (featuring Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug), Florynce Kennedy and Margaret Sloan-Hunter discuss the challenges facing Black feminists within the feminist movement and wider society. It sounds, unfortunately, very reminiscent of the conversations we’re still having in 2020.

Campos-Quinn says he experienced the same feeling. “It’s a really wild thing to look at the footage and see how completely relevant what happened then is to today,” he says.

Halfway through the 2020 DNC, looking ahead to the RNC, there’s plenty to compare between our current political circumstances and those of 1972. The media landscape has changed greatly, and yet we’re still searching for approaches to mediamaking that might achieve TVTV’s ultimate goal: entertainment that enhances awareness instead of numbing it.