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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

The Camcorder Revolution

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

In 1985, it is estimated that 500,000 Americans owned camcorders. Today that number has increased to 16 million. So where is the participatory democracy? Where are the millions of independent producers? Where is the creative use of the power of television, now in the hands of the "average American"? Have you seen it? Not much, I'll bet.

Why is it that more Americans aren't out there making their own TV programs?

The camcorder revolution is a revolution in theory, not in fact so far. It has not yet had any appreciable impact on our society at large or on our personal lives. This is unfortunate, and it is true for a number of different reasons.

One reason has to do with the way camcorders are advertised and marketed. The whole sales pitch is geared to family documentation and home movie situations. Manufacturers urge you to videotape your child's first steps, first words, your summer vacation, the school play. Camcorder ads show people using video technology to capture these personal family moments. They're important and precious and heartwarming to be sure (and I am not making light of them), but they are private, kind of like a moving-picture family scrapbook or 8 millimeter movies brought up to date. There is hardly ever the suggestion that normal people can make thoughtful and interesting TV programs with their camcorders that others might want to watch.

The distribution or exhibition of the programs -- even if they were being made -- is also a problem. The big broadcasting networks don't show homemade video. Or when they're forced to -- like with the Rodney King footage or video of a plane crash or fire -- they label the video "amateur". In fact, the networks only seem to be interested in citizen-produced video if the cameraperson happens to be at the right place at the right time to capture some cataclysmic news event on tape.

Either that or silliness, like "America's Funniest Home Videos" or some show that solicits video from the audience. Terminally cute or funny or embarrassing video clips might get shown on network TV, but again, nothing of importance, nothing of substance, no thoughtful creation from thecitizen-producer.

Local access TV in general (and Billerica Access TV in particular) can be an avenue for creative personal use of camcorders. Access exists to show people how to use the equipment effectively, how to edit their tapes, and then to show the finished product on television. And although access centers do a wonderful job with studio shows and broadcasting local community events, there are fewer shows made by people with camcorders than there could be.

Locally, Cosmo Cavicchio and Art Lacroix have made wonderful, entertaining, and informative programs with their "On The Road" series, kind of like a local Charles Kurault. They travel to local events (bazaars, blood drives, fairs) and walk around, talking to and videotaping the people they meet. A slice of hometown life in Billerica.

And Ed MacDonald takes his camcorder into the engine of a train and videotapes local train trips. On his "Trains with Ed," train buffs get to ride in the engine vicariously, and viewers get to see what the engineer sees.

These programs are local, they're imaginative, and they use the power of the camcorder to bring viewers places they usually don't get to go. There are other BATV camcorder programs and local producers who understand the potential of that portable camera, but not nearly as many as there could be.

The access community needs to be able to find ways to share these programs more widely and more effectively. Right now, they are shown only in Billerica. As with anything else, if people can see some new and interesting ways to use their equipment, they might try.

The dictionary defines "revolution" as "a momentous change in any situation." We have the potential for a camcorder revolution in this country today, the possibility and the promise for 16 million additional producers to show us something new, something of value, something with thought or imagination or passion.

That promise is as yet unrealized.

But we can begin.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.