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Lauren O’Neill-Butler on Top Value Television and the 1972 presidential conventions

Hudson Marquez and Chip Lord pose in front of the TVTV Media Van.

THE SAN FRANCISCO–BASED media collective Top Value Television (TVTV) was a bunch of “braless, blue-jeaned video freaks,” per Newsweek, who did what other news outlets didn’t. By producing several iconoclastic documentaries on politics and culture in the 1970s, they spearheaded a global movement of independent video, broadcasting the first tapes of this kind across US networks. They belonged to a critical group of video guerrillas, championing citizen journalism through cutting-edge consumer tech: the Sony Portapak, which was groundbreaking in those years for its “lightweight” twenty-five-pound batteries and its seven-pound hand-held camera (the recorder was a mainstay of early video art). TVTV primarily focused on revolutionizing news through a gonzo approach—unfolding conversations and atmospherics instead of terse sound bites and studio backdrops—beginning with their first two grainy, black-and-white videos: The World’s Largest TV Studio and Four More Years, which take us behind the scenes of the summer 1972 Democratic and Republican national conventions in Miami, respectively. Through verité means, these tapes offer up a volatile American moment and a sobering view of how little we’ve progressed as a nation. They remind us of the ’70s-era utopian delusion that if everyone wielded a portable video camera, the resultant proliferation of images would quickly change hearts and minds. Instead, we ended up with screen-based, scrutiny-free “iconopolitics,” as David Levi Strauss has phrased it, which is hitting a fever pitch in this month’s socially distanced conventions.

Remember that in 1972, ABC, CBS, and NBC ruled the news. At the conventions, their well-coiffed reporters were often stuck in a booth or a specific spot next to a large camera, ready to read whatever was given to them. Meanwhile, TVTV roamed around, capturing the texture of the events through on-the-ground interviews, stray audio and visuals, and behind-the-scenes hotel room meetings. For a few decades, much of this footage sat languishing in a garage—that old sad story—until, almost twenty years ago, hundreds of hours of TVTV footage was gifted to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Recently, the institution finalized a major restoration and digitization project, thanks to a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. An accompanying website presents a bounty of raw footage, interviews, and TVTV’s paper archives.

Jody Sibert and Wendy Appel interview a busload of Young Republicans at the 1972 Republican National Convention.

Those who caught FX’s recent Mrs. America will remember that the National Women’s Political Caucus met during the 1972 DNC and held a press conference featuring Bella Abzug, Sissy Farenthold, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem. TVTV filmed that event for The World’s Largest TV Studio and, in one brilliant outtake from it, they discussed intersectional feminism, avant la lettre, with activists Florynce Kennedy and Margaret Sloan-Hunter. Sloan-Hunter pointed to the exclusion of Black and lesbian women from second-wave feminism: “My involvement in the women’s movement follows out of my involvement in the Black movement, except now I’m addressing myself to the needs of the majority of the Black nation, which are Black women,” she explains. Kennedy and Sloan-Hunter went on to become founding members of the National Black Feminist Organization the next year.

Another major event of that year’s DNC was a battle led by supporters of presidential nominee George McGovern to remove Chicago mayor Richard Daley and his delegation. Their auspicious replacement with a new coalition led by Chicago Alderman William S. Singer and Jesse Jackson is powerfully portrayed in The World’s Largest TV Studio. There are more astute depictions of the politicians, delegates, and voters to mention, but it’s also worth noting that TVTV took great care to show themselves at work as well. They came to Miami with a large group: Twenty-six people from the collective rented a house, and throughout the video they reveal their tactics and the hitches they encountered as a small and often suspect crew trying to enter the convention.

Maureen Orth interviewed John Lewis and Tom Houck for TVTV at the 1972 Republican National Convention.

Taking a cue from Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President 1968 (1969), Four More Years continues to show TVTV’s prowess with gaining access amid a slightly more aggressive media ecosystem at Richard Nixon’s RNC. The interviews are by turns cheeky and candid: TVTV grills Julie Nixon, Tricia Nixon-Cox, and Edward Cox, as well as members of the Young Republicans and the Nixonettes. Several interviews in Four More Years are with the media, something certainly no one else was doing: Dan Rather talks about being bored on the floor (he’s more energized in The World’s Largest TV Studio) while Walter Cronkite explains why he didn’t stand during the Star-Spangled Banner (he was working). Regarding the controversy and scrutiny that ensued at the RNC, he tells TVTV that the introspection it prompted in him was “not good for a journalist”—presaging many of the opinions Masha Gessen shares in Surviving Autocracy (2020).  

In one long clip outside the RNC, TVTV’s Maureen Orth spoke to the late congressman John Lewis and the activist Tom Houck, asking both for thoughts on “the young people here tonight,” after what was clearly a long day of working on their separate voter registration initiatives. Houck compares the group to the “voices that stayed silent and particularly calm when Hitler was taking over”; the association is reinforced by a clip where Young Republicans chant “four more years” while doing something of a Sieg Heil salute. Lewis speaks about his civil rights activism and nonpartisan ethics: “There comes a time in the life of a country and the life of a people when you stand for something—and you don’t stand for it because of a party or a particular man but because it’s right.”