Rita Ogden and Wendy Appel filming with the 1970s Sony Portapak. Photo: Paul Goldsmith

Watching Four More Years — a “guerrilla” documentary about the 1972 Republican convention which re-nominated Richard Nixon for president — is a surreal back-to-the-future experience. On the one hand, there is the somewhat grainy black-and-white video and the vintage 1972 clothes, hairstyles and personalities. On the other hand, there is a distinctly YouTube flavor to the hand-held cameras and off-mike questions. And then there is an eerily prescient controversy involving CBS anchor Walter Cronkite — often cited as “the most trusted man in America”— who didn’t stand up when the Star-Spangled Banner was played at the Republican convention. But more on that later.

The documentary — along with a companion piece about the 1972 Democratic convention is one of 400 hours of analog videos now being restored and digitized by the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). The restoration is funded by a recent $220,537 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

TVTV was the equivalent of today’s millennials with cell phones, wanting to tell their story and show their truth about the world.

This video trove — about 10 hours of completed documentaries and hundreds of hours of out-takes — was produced by a collective of Bay Area video makers who called themselves TVTV, short for Top Value Television. TVTV included about 30 people, mostly in their 20s, and mostly without any formal training in video, film, journalism or documentary-making. They were the equivalent of today’s millennials with cell phones, wanting to tell their story and show their truth about the world. 

The new technology pioneered by TVTV was revolutionary at the time: 1/2-inch video shot with “portable” Sony Portapak batteries, which, at 25 pounds, were considered lightweight. The seven-pound cameras were hand-held.

“We were very inspired by Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson,” said Allen Rucker, one of TVTV’s founders. “We were the first to bring New Journalism into television. We wanted to show scenes instead of telling people what happened, to let conversations unfold rather than taking quick quotes or soundbites. It was a very experiential filmmaking style, to put ourselves in as observers and participants.”

Underground television

The collective’s initial goal was to go behind the scenes of the 1972 Democratic and Republican conventions. “You have to understand that at the time, there was only ABC, CBS and NBC,” said Megan Williams, another TVTV founder. “There was no such thing as a portable camera [for the network crews]. For the most part, reporters were sitting in a booth or standing next to a very large camera, telling you what was going on, dressed up in a suit and tie or dress and heels. The news was filtered by a reporter. We weren’t doing that: we were letting situations unfold in front of the camera, and letting the visuals and the audio capture what was really going on.”

The political documentaries have no voice-overs (no “voice of God,” in the word of one historian), no chyrons (captions), and thus very little context. If you don’t know the larger story of what happened at those contentious 1972 conventions, you might feel a little lost watching the TVTV footage. What those documentaries do provide, however, are assorted snapshots of the back-story of the conventions.

Doug Michels with the relatively lightweight Portapak next to a laden-down CBS news reporter. Photo: TVTV

“As young 20-somethings, we chose to show you things you would just never ever see,” Williams said. The group believed that the conventions were staged-for-television theatrical productions — rather than actual political events — which is why they called their documentary on the Democratic convention The World’s Largest TV Studio. “We interviewed the media themselves,” which no one else was doing, Williams said. “We asked Jim Wallace and Roger Mudd and Walter Cronkite what they thought of the network coverage.” 

The broadcast journalists, as it turned out, were not any more forthcoming than politicians. After being interviewed for several minutes about the brouhaha over the Star-Spangled Banner — Cronkite was working in his glass broadcasting booth when the anthem was played, and did not take the time to stand up — he told the TVTV crew: “All of this introspection is not good for a journalist, I can tell you that.”

YouTube video

The group raised about $12,000 to film the Democratic convention, and slightly more to cover the Republican convention. The money came from small foundations, individual donors and four cable systems (which were in their infancy). The funds covered film, editing and travel costs, but did not include a salary for the collective members.

“We were inventing a new form of television. This was a very media-innocent time, so we could go and ask people questions, and they answered the questions.”
— Allen Rucker

At the Democratic convention, TVTV interviewed supporters of segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace as well as drugged-out hippies. At the Republican convention, they conducted poignant interviews with former soldiers involved with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, as well as earnest Nixon supporters. The videos include priceless vintage cameos of famous personalities such as Ronald Reagan; George McGovern; Richard Daley; Jerry Rubin; Willie Brown; Shirley MacLaine; Walter Cronkite; Roger Mudd; and Dan Rather.

“We were inventing a new form of television,” said Rucker. “This was a very media-innocent time, so we could go and ask people questions, and they answered the questions. Now everybody is so guarded, especially public figures.”

“We were educators, teachers, artists, journalists, filmmakers: we all grew up on television,” Williams added. “We were the first TV generation, we had an affinity with it. Everyone was looking for something radical and unusual to do. There was underground radio, underground newspapers, and the New Journalism. We realized there was no alternative technology on TV,” so the group started the TVTV collective. Rucker and Williams are still friends, and live in the Los Angeles area.

A cultural archive

The videos had been sitting in Rucker’s garage for many years. “He got tired of being the steward of all these tapes, so he asked me if I wanted to take them off his hands,” said Steve Seid, who had been the media curator of the Pacific Film Archive for 25 years. Seid persuaded BAMPFA to take the tapes, scrapbooks and other TVTV memorabilia, and then drove down to Los Angeles to pick them up. “That was almost 20 years ago,” Seid said. It has taken two decades to find the funding to preserve the aging and deteriorating magnetic tapes.

The archives will provide researchers with hundreds of hours of never-aired and long-forgotten interviews with 1970s politicians, television personalities and plain citizens.

The raw footage has “extraordinary moments in it,” Seid said. “There was so much historical ferment. For research purposes, having access to the out-takes may be even more important than the finished work.”

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Over the collective’s short existence, they managed to film several non-political documentaries as well. One of the best-known is Lord of the Universe,  an award-winning expose of a 15-year-old jet-set guru named Guru Maharaj Ji. As part of this and other documentaries, TVTV ended up interviewing or working with Steven Spielberg, Hunter Thompson, Annie Leibovitz, Bill Murray, John Belushi and many others. “These people eventually became the most famous people of our era,” Williams said. “There is amazing stuff that hasn’t been discovered yet in all this raw footage. It’s an extremely valuable cultural and historical archive.”

“There is amazing stuff that hasn’t been discovered yet in all this raw footage. It’s an extremely valuable cultural and historical archive.”
— Megan Williams

As part of the NEH grant, museum staff will conduct a series of video interviews with Williams and Rucker and other surviving members of the collective. “They will review [footage] they haven’t seen in many years and provide commentary on that,“ said Mona Nagai, BAMPFA film collections curator. “We would like to show something about the creative process of documentary filmmakers, and how they whittle from hours and hours of  to this very very small fraction” that actually appears in the finished product.

“We have also invited a local archivist and a local filmmaker who produced a documentary about Richard Nixon to look at the footage and write about whatever selections they are interested in,” added John Shibata, BAMPFA assistant film archivist.

The 1/2 inch video format is a “high priority for preservation because it’s an endangered format,” Nagai said. “Fewer and fewer places have the ability to play that kind of video any more. And of course, as time passes the videotape is subject to deterioration.” BAMPFA is outsourcing the physical restoration to a Bay Area lab that uses vintage equipment and can still play this kind of tape. “The tapes themselves are super fragile, and in a lot of cases there are restoration steps that need to be taken to make sure a stable image can be transferred,” Nagai said. “The tape actually has to be baked in low heat over a long time, to help the layers rebond and stabilize.”

TVTV also had extensive paper archives which will be scanned and made available to researchers. The process of digitizing and archiving the materials will take two years, Nagai said. The museum may also stage an exhibition and host lectures focusing on these materials.

The birth of eye-witness news

“If Ant Farm was San Francisco’s best-known video art group, TVTV was the city’s most successful guerrilla TV group,” Deidre Boyle wrote in Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000. The collective’s work “transformed the way the world viewed portable video and television” and created a style that came to be called “eyewitness news,” Boyle wrote. At the time, TVTV’s work was known as “guerrilla television.”  

“TVTV’s iconoclastic coverage of the events — brash interviews with the media and politicians alike, cameraman-interviewers, stylish graphics, and no voice-overs, in sum their own video version of vérité — garnered praise from jaded journalists and hipster critics alike,” Boyle wrote. “Their experimental TV tactics proved that a new style and energy had swept away the known world of network TV news.”

At the time, “no one had ever seen a portable camera stuck in their face, let alone one held by what Newsweek called at the time ‘braless, blue-jeaned video freaks’,” the group recalls on its website. “Because the technology was so new, there were no rules about how to use it or what to make. TVTV used it to make format-bending satirical shows about whatever interested them.”

“As wry and worldly as they thought themselves back then, when you look at the coverage now it looks kind of naive,” Seid said. “To go to the convention and be bratty to a major syndicated journalist: it was such a new thing, there’s a kind of naïveté about it. There was a constant process of discovery for them: they were stumbling through a historical moment, and capturing what they saw. It was very crude in the beginning: you can chart how they are learning over time.” Despite all this, TVTV’s documentaries ended up on airing nationally on PBS and reached a wide audience.

“TVTV was a landmark group because they were using small-format video and getting national broadcasts for it, which at the time was completely unheard-of,” Seid said.

Eventually, due to lack of funding for their work, the group left the Bay Area for Los Angeles in the late 1970. Some of the members ended up becoming successful commercial Hollywood producers, directors and writers. But TVTV itself almost went bankrupt, and the members eventually broke up amid much acrimony and even a lawsuit. But the videotapes remain, and they are getting a new life in digital form.

Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...