Video Revolutions – Michael Z. Newman

Posted on March 24, 2014

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Mention of the humble video cassette might bring back fond memories of scrabbling around for that sliver of empty space to record something, or the underground trading of tapes for the latest movie, or some long forgotten piece of archive television. For others, it meant freedom of choice in what to watch on television, or the chance to have part of the cinema in their home. Of course, such an individual response makes an overall analysis somewhat difficult.

A new book from Michael Z. Newman tries to analyse the video medium though and eschews a popular history of the medium in favour of a dryer, academic approach to the rise and fall of video, and an open discussion on what the concept of ‘video’ actually means.

Its US-centric focus means that some of the more unique UK aspects of the video revolution (for example, BBC Video’s tentative steps into the market in the mid-1980’s) aren’t featured. Nonetheless, Newman makes several interesting, if verbose, points about the development of video as a medium.

The notion of a programme, or play, being recorded rather than transmitted live as cheating the viewer is a fascinating one. This is perhaps less surprising in the wake of scandal’s such as the Twenty One quiz one, but still even today disclaimers at the end of, especially US. shows indicate that programmes may not be shown in the order they were shot. If television was to afford immediate access to news and programming, recorded programming was, and perhaps still is, viewed as fraudulent.

Recollections of Captain Video, a science-fiction superhero appearing on US television between 1948 and 1955 positions video as a progressive medium. Captain Video and his Video Rangers, to give the series its full title, saw the titular character fight Dr. Pauli, a Nazi-style inventor. Much is made of video here being a representation of progress and achievement, especially over Dr. Pauli’s machinations. This likely is an over-exaggeration of what this low-budget series intentions actually were, but still is a fascinating examination, not only for TV and science-fiction enthusiasts, but for scholars of the medium of how the notion of video was seen as not only a technological, but ideological progression.

For all the fear of video though, without it, even more of our cultural heritage would be lost. Live television dramas are notably missing from the archives, and as increasingly attention turns to missing episodes and examples of live television drama from the medium’s childhood days, without video even more examples would be absent.

If you could get recorded programming in the cinema in the form of film, then video was seen as damaging to television. Sitting in between television and film, video existed in a vacuum for many years until it began to be seen as a saviour to the dwindling offerings on television.

What Video Revolutions doesn’t touch on was the underground movement of sharing of tapes. Yet, as moving into the 1970’s as video affords freedom of choice to consumers, it’s fair to say that few had actually foreseen the ability for consumers to record programmes off the air. There was a fear that audiences wouldn’t pay for something they could get for free via their television sets that impacted on video releases of films. A few scant decades on, and the video revolution is less reflected in the sales charts, but rather piracy, as file sharing becomes the new currency.

Video now informs television in a way no-one had thought possible: reality TV. Big Brother acts as a prime example of this at its peak. But other shows as far back as Beadle’s About and You’ve Been Framed allow home-spun video and for the television viewer to be the star of the show.

Video Revolutions reflects on a dying medium that has been hard done to. Whether it is universities cynicism that video damages the integrity of film studies as discipline, or the potential damage caused by bootlegging, the video revolution has changed the face of not only the television, but also the film industry forever.

Yet, unlike vinyl’s renaissance, the physical product of a VHS cassette has not become coveted. Indeed, even charity shops and car boot sales cannot get rid of them, and it appears that DVD is heading the same way. Perhaps video’s legacy is to become a disposable and transient medium. As the country’s landfills fill up with unwanted tapes and attention instead shifts to streaming media, the video revolution is grinding to a halt.

Newman does not satisfactory consider video’s future sadly. The advent of streaming media is in its early days, but there is much to be discussed about the strands of those happy enough to watch streaming video against those that are demanding ever more increasingly sophisticated forms of replicating cinema style experiences in their living rooms. I suspect the next stage of the revolution will pitch purists against those happy to use their media devices such as games consoles, or tablets, to stream video.

A mixed bag then. Admittedly, this is an academic examination of the medium, but Newman’s prose is verbose on occasion, and may have benefited from a more popular look at the medium. I would have enjoyed it more had some of the points been explored more. On occasion, the conclusion wraps up things quicker than you’d like, as if the fast-forward button has been pressed. Also, the evocative cover isn’t wholly representative of much of the discussion inside. But Video Revolutions is a diverting, if not wholly satisfying, look into a dying media.

Video Revolutions is available from 14 May. Pre-order now over at Amazon.

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Posted in: Non-Fiction