Shot on Video (DIY in the age of VHS)

As the politically motivated DIY Video Groups faded from the media landscape, another technological and cultural revolution swept across the United States in the form of the video cassette.

The early video pioneers we discussed above used separate Video Cameras and Video Recorders. This enabled a High Degree of flexibility, but it also suggested a need for a crew of at least two people and, while this gear was certainly less cumbersome than the professional gear that proceeded it, it was still somewhat awkward to operate. The late 70s and the early 80s saw the introduction of the Video Cassette and eventually the camcorder (that is to say, a video CAMera and a video tape reCORDER in a single housing.)

Concurrently with the camcorder, the Video Cassette swept the country. The Video Cassette, in the form of the VHS or Betamax tape, brought durable, decent looking, easy to use video tape to the masses (in the same way that the 8-track and eventually the audio cassette had transformed audio tape.) and with it, for the first time, the general public could make a decision about what was shown on their television, and when.

The video cassette brought Time Shifting to the fore, allowing viewers to choose when they watched the things that were broadcast to them. It created the home video market, and the video rental market, spawning a new class of businesses across the globe essentially overnight. It also spawned its share of lawsuits.

This combination of new avenues for distribution, and even smaller and easier to use video equipment resulted in something unexpected: a boom in independent cinema. Across the globe, dozens of people who were unfamiliar with the theories of Guerrilla Television and video vérité set out to emulate or imitate the things that they had seen on the silver screen.

That such a thing didn’t immediately spring out of the first home video revolution may have been a result of technical limitations, but it was also certainly a result of the prevailing attitudes of the culture of early video. Take this excerpt from Radical Software for example:

Global information is the natural enemy of local government, for it reveals the true context in which that government is operating. Global television is directly responsible for the political turmoil that is increasing around the world today. The political establishments sense this and are beginning to react. But it’s too late. Television makes it impossible for governments to maintain the illusion of sovereignty and separatism which are essential for their existence . Television is one of the most revolutionary tools in the entire spectrum of technoanarchy.

Television, like the computer, is a sleeping giant. But those who are beginning to use it in revolutionary new ways are very much awake. The first generation of television babies has reached maturity having watched 15,000 hours of television while completing only 10,000 hours of formal education through high school. Yet television itself still has not left the breast of commercial sponsorship. Just as cinema had imitated theater for seventy years, television has imitated cinema imitating theater for twenty years. But the new generation with its transnational interplanetary video consciousness will not tolerate the miniaturized vaudeville that is television as presently employed. We will liberate the media.

To put it another way, the PortaPak made it possible for people to make their own video. The camcorder made it likely that any given person would. It had adoption on an unprecedented scale, and the people who adopted the camcorder did not approach it with the same high minded ideas of technoanarchy that had preoccupied the early video pioneers.

Instead, some of the people who embraced the camcorder and the video cassette decided that video imitating television imitating cinema imitating theater was not only good, but could also be profitable. From this concept, we see the birth of companies like Troma Entertainment which launched the careers of James Gunn, Trey Stone and Matt Parker, and characters like The Toxic Avenger. It’s also from this scene that we find Robert Rodriguez, director of El Mariachi, Spy Kids, Machette, and founder of the El Rey network (although he often shot on film, he edited and distributed his early work on video cassette) among many other independent filmmakers.

For every successful entrant in to the world of DIY Video in the 80s and 90s, there were thirty or forty failures. Movies like Chickboxer or Treasure of the Ninja which were only ever distributed on hand dubbed VHS tapes out of the trunks of cars or in scattered video stores around the country.

In the VHS era, fully half or more of households in the United States had a camcorder, most homes had a VCR; it was possible to find distribution in video stores, to get your footage in the hands of people who would watch it, and occasionally to make money at it.

But the counterculture of the 60s and 70s had given way to neoconservativism and cynicism in the 80s. Without a movement unifying proponents of DIY TV towards a common goal, without organization, these video creators largely worked in silos. As a result, they found themselves recreating the best and worst of traditional media.

In many ways, video had been democratized! But, outside of the radical and reactionary wing of global right wing politics and American evangelical Christianity, no one knew what to do about it.

And then DVDs became the standard, almost overnight, and the world went once again from read/write to read-only.

Public Access

The 1980s and early 90s, the era of the VHS, also saw a resurgence in Public Access television in the areas that still had Public Access networks. The public access television scene of the VHS era was vibrant, and contained many interesting works. (But, public access was prohibited from editorializing, so your Shot-On-Video scifi film or documentary on the Battle of Blair Mountain might be bookended by the most vile, racist propaganda imaginable, and there was not a thing you could do about it.)

Public Access television was, and is in the few places that it still exists, occasionally wonderful. But it is also flawed and limited in ways that only become obvious when you work within it. It is full of red tape, petty bureaucracy, and the looming threat that everything you create while working with public access can only ever be shown in an entirely non-profit setting, lest you suddenly owe the public access network vast and uncountable sums of money.

Public Access is a half measure that aims to provide democratic and equitable access to broadcasting, but in fact reinforces existing power structures and ideological divides. It wears a veneer of equitable democratization over what is actually anti-democratic equality, falling victim to the paradox of tolerance, while also being plagued with a lack of access for the majority of the people in the US.


The DIY video movement of the VHS era was, economically, fairly successful. Lots of filmmakers launched their careers here. It was not a political or social movement, it was just about telling stories (but stories, as we will later discuss, carry with them the values and beliefs of the storyteller, and in that way this movement was more successful than one might expect).

The VHS era normalized the concept of watching on your own schedule, of watching something different than your neighbors, of seeking out the material that you were most interested in as a viewer. It gave viewers their first taste of Choice, however fleeting.


The goal of the video creators of the VHS era seems to have been, almost exclusively, to become part of the Hollywood system rather than to replace it. They imitated the form and function of traditional media, even when they could not practically afford to do so.

The radical right and evangelical groups took to DIY video in the age of VHS especially well, leading to widespread distribution of conspiracy theories, hateful propaganda, and racist blatherings. The evangelicals produced their own alternate reality of independent media, from Bibleman and Veggietales to more insidious and distasteful things, and they distributed these tapes through their own distribution networks and stores, allowing their movement to grow.

In the era of the VHS tape, the radical right proved that it is easier to get people to rally around hate and the exclusion of an outgroup than it is to get them to stand up for the kinds of radical change that will improve the lives of most people.

Up Next: Jamming the Media