Video began as a technological innovation and changed the media landscape of mainstream network television around the globe forever. As the technology became more accessible to the consumer market, it developed a greater impact on independent filmmaking: “media arts centers” emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as community media with the advent of community video centers and programs. By the 1980s video had become a revolutionizing force worldwide, changing the way audiovisual media as part of TV and film culture were produced and consumed in everyday life.
Programming diversified and paved the way to today’s transnational media systems, which profoundly impact the way we conduct our public and private lives. Nowadays, average citizens, for example, can upload privately recorded questions to presidential candidates and expect to have direct access to their political realm. The TV news coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 privileged amateur footage over the images shot by professional TV crews, and the footage was distributed via YouTube to a national audience. The actual perpetrator of the shootings sent his video message post-mortem to NBC television as a video manifesto, similar to the recordings of terrorist suicide bombers or even the tapes circulated by Osama Bin Laden. Individually produced media messages have gained validity and authenticity as a discursive device and an acceptable form of public speaking. In this way, the current standard of digital video recording has realized what analog technology was originally meant to be: a form of assembling electronic images, captured on tape, that can be easily distributed.
Video is seemingly an outdated technology, but one can also regard it as an umbrella term to capture both analog and digital technologies. As an analog recording and distribution system it is currently being phased out of public and private use. Once a welcome medium of information, used by professional television journalists, cable-casters, independent filmmakers, underground video guerillas, visual artists, educators, therapists, researchers, lawyers, and business executives to record and tape, analog video is now a technological dinosaur. VCRs (video cassette recorders) as playback devices as well as video camcorders are being discontinued in public higher education.
Video tape when it was first introduced was a recording device that allowed a new aesthetic of representation. It changed the nature of television programming, expanded access to media production, and altered the way audiovisual material could be viewed and used. Because it facilitated pre-recording and editing, its introduction c. 1960 moved television from a largely live broadcast format, with live commercial pitches incorporated into the programs themselves, to pre-recorded and edited presentations, with advertisements spliced in “magazine style”. Cheaper than film, video democratized amateur access, eventually making home video nearly as ubiquitous as snapshot photography. This marketing of VCRs made it possible for producers and consumers to quickly wind video tape forward and backward and to review content repeatedly. As Johnson (2005) points out, the VCR was a “repetition engine,” a tool to rewind, replay, repeat. In its opening decades television was a “present-tense medium,” but video tape and the VCR allowed for delayed viewing, limitless repetition of content, and seemingly limitless distribution and syndication (Wasser 2001). It anticipated, and set the stage for, the current explosion of individualized media consumption with its descendant technologies: podcasting, digital recording, Internet downloads, and hand-held devices.
By the late 1970s, average consumers in industrialized countries could acquire video technology and pursue amateur video production. By the 1980s, public service community programming on most European state television systems, and newly established public cable access TV stations in the US, provided venues to exhibit professional and communitybased video production. However, in most US cities participation in community cable access never lived up to early expectations. A variety of factors contributed to this, including tepid support from cable operators, a general lack of publicity for and public awareness of video production opportunities, and the reluctance of many people to invest time or energy in video training and nonprofit media production.
The fact that much of the amateur programming on public cable access does not match the polished look of commercial media also seems to inhibit recruitment of new participants, often limiting producers to small and consistent circles of community activists and media enthusiasts. Still, new television channels for nonprofit, community-based video production have successfully expanded, and some of the earliest attempts to take advantage of these new channels, such as Paper Tiger Television and Deep Dish Television, have become legendary examples of the possibilities for low-budget video.
History Of The Video Tape
The basic technology for analog audiovisual recording is the magnetic tape, the video cassette. This recording technology was developed more than 100 years ago by the Danish telephone engineer Valdemar Poulsen of the Copenhagen Telegraph Company, who attempted to record telephone messages onto magnetic film. The first magnetic recording device received a patent in 1898 as the “telegraphone.” The first “magnetophone” was introduced by the German company AEG Telefunken in 1935 during the Radio Fair in Berlin. The first stage of video-tape technology is linked to the 1956 Ampex machine, a stationary device that used a 2-inch video tape. The technology advanced, became more mobile and lightweight, and led to different formats, such as the reel-to-reel format of the 1960s and 1970s (3/4-inch U-matic and then 1/2-inch tape cassette, sold by Sony in 1975). Narrower tape brought with it lower cost and increased portability. It allowed the VCR to become a global mass medium. It became the standard to record media messages in broadcast companies throughout the world and was also introduced to the domestic consumer home market. The introduction of audio cassettes in 1963 by Philips led to the opportunity to do sound recordings and voice dictation. What was initially conceived as a dictation device became a technology that allowed for individualized recordings to listen to music or to interviews by journalists, as well as the recording of classroom lectures.
A primary advantage of digital technology over analog recording is that sound and video quality do not suffer from reproduction. In the tape-to-tape format of the analog medium, each time a tape is copied (that is, each generation of tape in the post-production process) the sound and picture quality are diminished. Digital recording also allows for fast access to materials, precluding the need for tedious forwarding and rewinding when editing, although losing a quality of video that has been used by filmmakers and video-makers over the years as a stylistic trope.
For example, the Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan uses the qualities of video tape to suggest shifting memory and the erasure of the past, as when he erases recordings by taping over them in his early film Family Viewing (1987). Egoyan also questions the notion that video can project reality faithfully, a concept that is at the core of the advent of reality TV, and continues his work in films such as Speaking Parts (1989). In sex, lies, and videotape (1989) independent filmmaker Steven Soderbergh uses the look of home video to mimic the voyeurism of the amateur pornography market. Other examples where video plays an integral part in the narrative are David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1982), a science fiction where viewers of video tapes develop violent hallucinations, and the Spanish production Tesis (1997) by Alejandro Amenabar, which engages with snuff videos and murder. Gore Verbinski’s US production The Ring (2002) belongs to the horror film genre and uses video as a key storytelling device. An independent film from France, Cachée (“Hidden,” 2005), by German-Austrian director Michael Haneke, represents video tapes as carriers of meaning and access to the past. Earlier examples of Haneke’s films, such as Der Siebente Kontinent (“The Seventh Continent,” 1988) and Benny’s Video (1992), already engage with the mass media as social criticism: television and video, according to Haneke, lead to the collapse of interpersonal communication and to violence.
Video as a democratic art form and a means of self-expression continues to be powerful. It facilitates the recording of content in remote areas of the world and helps to bring marginalized voices into the mainstream. One such example is Afghanistan Unveiled (2003), a video collection by Brigitte Brault and the Aina Women Filming Group, distributed by Women Make Movies (WMM) in New York. The documentary was shot by 14 young women journalists in Afghanistan who had been trained in the context of the post-US-invasion détente to represent life in their villages. The video was shown in international film festivals and on public television in the United States, and has been distributed by WMM. It effectively illustrates the impact of easy access to video production technology.
Another such example emerged in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom. The British Broadcasting Corporation launched an experiment to empower individual subjects to record so-called “video diaries” as first-person, subjective video statements – glorified home videos. The domestic camcorder and home access to technology allowed for a reinvention of the video medium by providing personal, visual narratives for television. This movement preceded reality TV. The voyeurism and scopophilia entailed in watching somebody’s recordings of their private lives and thoughts were tapped into by this innovative strategy of using a well-established institution to support the representation of the voiceless. A team of producers and camera men would assist and accompany a chosen subject over the course of a year and help record his or her diaries. The ratio between recordings and post-production edited content was 150:1. The sheer amount of recordings that had to be edited and selected in post-production posed a major commitment of time and staff for the BBC. Tony Steyger was one of the producers on the show. He describes the BBC Community Programme Unit in London as being part of the fringes of the organization (Steyger 2006). Access television was considered to be different from cable access in the United States and Canada. The topics were suggested by viewers and campaigning organizations, featured social issues, and reflected a social conscience.
What facilitated the occurrence of this form of programming was the invention of the lightweight domestic video camcorder. While the BBC producers trained subjects in recording their lives, and coached them to represent their own stories on tape, at times speaking directly into the camera in the privacy of their own bedroom, the idea was that “real” stories would emerge, unfiltered by the institutional context of the broadcast establishment: “TV made for the public by the public” (Steyger 2006). A key development in this movement for self-expression has been a change in the visual language: amateur videographers have changed the norms of representation. The genre of the video diary has revolutionized the visual aesthetic by introducing new forms such as innovative angles, point-of-view shots, longer interview bites, spontaneous-looking interactions between subjects on the screen, jump cuts, and open-ended formats of storytelling. The main code of interviews, where subjects are supposed to look off camera, was transformed by the direct address of the diarists (used by Errol Morris in his documentary projects through the device of the Interrotron).
This new wave of reality TV has also triggered a set of new mainstream formats, such as Big Brother in England and the US Wife Swap. The video revolution facilitated the digital explosion of self-expression that one can witness on the web, where “reality” is packaged by techno-savvy individuals who do not need institutional support to express themselves, and who upload their versions of reality onto YouTube and MySpace or stream a program via podcasting onto computer screens.
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