Getting Closer to Folk TV Production: Nontraditional Uses of Video in the U.S. and Other Cultures

By Burch, Elizabeth | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Getting Closer to Folk TV Production: Nontraditional Uses of Video in the U.S. and Other Cultures


Burch, Elizabeth, Journal of Film and Video


In the last 15 years, more than 14 million Americans have become video camera converts, diligently toting their Sonys or JVCs from vacation to vacation, event to event. By 1990, consumers worldwide had spent over $6 billion on wonderfully inexpensive video cameras, declaring that "miniature is beautiful" (Johnstone 59) and "portable is in."

The increase in accessibility to the onceexclusive television medium is the result of a steady decrease in the cost of video equipment. What has emerged is the so-called democratization of the video production experience. This "movement" has begun to change the way television programming, especially news and documentaries, is produced. In addition, as the "camcorder revolution" begins to unloosen control of the messages on the airwaves within the Western world, video is playing a more important role in changing television production in nonWestern cultures. Nonbroadcast programs have been affected as well.

Today's videographers have become the new eyes and ears of the public. We know that roving "freelance" amateur shooters take up the slack at newsrooms, recording, often by chance, what the professionals have missed. Independent producers also use video to make "alternative" documentary programs, although only a small percentage of these programs get aired on mainstream television. Finally, people from non-Western societies have begun to turn cameras on themselves, using them to help in their communities' cultural and physical survival.

This article asks, What effect do nontraditional media have on broadcast and nonbroadcast video programs? It examines, from a historical perspective, the phenomenon of "small-format" video cultures, which made up the ranks, and how the medium was used to change the standards of the televisual experience. It discusses the emergence of new forms of entertainment programming, as well as the use of video as a force for social change, news dissemination, artistic expression, community development, and education. The purpose is to better understand the origins of this shift in the status quo in video programming and why "the pictures in our heads" are no longer mediated only by the so-called experts in television production.

From Broadcast Television to Homespun Videos

Television was introduced to the world more than half a century ago at the 1939 New York World's Fair. It was begun as a form of entertainment for a mass audience, and programming was geared to the lowest-common-denominator viewer. The goal of the medium was simple: to sell soap-in other words, to sell products to the public. What has evolved has led Americans down a path of fascination with the tension between fantasy and reality, evidence of the need to digest stories about the world we inhabit and pass on news of "the tribes."

Today, it is possible to "narrowcast," that is, decentralize and localize programming to specific audiences (McLellan, "Video and Narrowcasting-TV"). Simultaneously, as American society has become more diverse, diversity in programming has also become possible. Moreover, the invention of portable video cameras has enabled a small, albeit still elite, army of independent and amateur videographers to "go for" those 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol promised each of us. But how did this new sort of unwritten constitution of video by and for the people get started?

In 1956, Ampex introduced its new video tape recorder at the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention, setting in motion a series of video-related events. The first cameras weighed hundreds of pounds and limited television production to a broadcast studio. But eventually, technological breakthroughs were made as a result of fierce interformat wars with Japan's electronic consumer marketers. This led to the production of somewhat more portable video gear.

CBS News blazed the trail of "electronic news gathering" (ENG) when it began using video cameras in 1974, and eventually it abandoned film for video altogether in the 1980s.

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