Whatever Happened to 'TVTV'?

In the early '70s, Bay Area cable companies began experimenting with a new breed of television journalists, a left-wing San Francisco collective of writers, editors, shooters and actors who called themselves "TVTV," short for "Top Value Television."

Cameras were still enormous, but each year's technical achievement decreased their size, cost and portability.

Financed by donations and a deal with four cable companies, these rag-tag band of guys (and girls) prided themselves in shooting their own concepts, some scripted but most created on the fly as if apart of a guerilla filmmaking improv group.

"The world is our studio!" was their credo.

"TVTV" pioneered the use of independent video based on wanting to change society, but also have a good time while inventing new and then revolutionary media.

While networks and local news departments were still locked into a 35mm film tradition (and in many cases 30-plus year old equipment), "TVTV" pioneered the use of the Sony Portapak hand held video before anyone ever invented the initials HD.

In their total time together, they had successfully produced eight documentary specials:

>> "Four More Years" (1972), covering the 1972 Republican Convention

>> "The World's Largest TV Studio" (1972), covering the 1972 Democratic Convention.

>> "Adland" (1974), an examination of American commercial culture

>> "Lord of the Universe" (1974)

>> "TVTV Looks at the Oscars" (1976)

>> "TVTV: Super Bowl" (1976)

>> "Gerald Ford's America" (1975)

>> "The Bob Dylan Hard Rain Special" (1976), another NBC co-production

Lee Stevens, who at the time managed WMA's New York office, was shown their Oscar video by actress-director Lee Grant who raved about "these incredible kids with cameras ..." Both Lees called me and urged me to get into it.

While they had already produced and telecast four groundbreaking video documentaries by the time Grant brought them to my attention, it was their work for "TVTV Looks at the Oscars" (where they followed Oscar-nominated Grant the entire evening) that convinced me to go after their representation.

Michael Shamberg, Hudson Marquez, Allen Rucker, Tom Weinberg, Megan Williams, Chip Lord, Doug Michels, Curtis Schreier, Skip Blumberg, Nancy Cain, Chuck Kennedy, Parry Teasdale, Elan Soltes, David Axelrod, Wendy Apple and Harold Ramis made up the original crew. One ordinary morning, many of them assembled in my tiny office.

Other participants in 'TVTV' included actor-comedian Bill Murray and his brother Brian Doyle-Murray. In one memorable segment, a pre-SNL actor named John Belushi made his first performance on the tube.

All seemed to have personal agendas.

While it was clear that Shamberg was the "leader," each had their own project or several that they wanted to pursue with a major agency push. Each "TVTV" associate took me aside and assured me that we would have a "special relationship."

Which could only mean a panoply of phone calls.

Other agents thought I was insane (with a doezen hippies crowding into my office), but I followed up my signing pitch by bringing them all down to the first floor to meet with our department head. They hadn't even mentioned that ICM was actively pursuing them, as well.

Some of the group had met with that agency's TV department, and they were presented with major "selling out" ideas such as conventional half-hour sitcoms.

We would never be so base as to shove them into half hour sitcoms. Or would we?

When they agreed to become clients, my colleagues immediately brought them to the attention of other producing clients.

That was conventional agent wisdom, but it was wrong.

Few seemed to "get it," and the reality was they didn't need others to tell them what was unique and what was funny.

Although I must admit I worried about "funny" and "TVTV." As disciples of a new breed of cynical humor for the '70s, they were clearly and collectively on another wavelength.

"TVTV" was viewed as a groundbreaking journalistic force peopled by a individuals so solemn and serious to the point of aberration without any inkling of a sense of humor. This group, without exception, led one of my colleagues to remark, "there are gorillas in the mist who are funnier than these guerilla filmmakers."

Notwithstanding perceptions of humor, my signing a new breed of TV creator resonated with competitor ICM.

I was immediately "romanced," taken to lunch and offered a job.

They had lost out in signing them and wanted the winner. It was $40,000 a year, difficult to value today, but a magic number for me at the time taking home under $200 a week.

When I hesitated, the rep for ICM, said you can also have the car of your choice if you keep it secret. "We know you're into cars and dream of a Porsche 911 Carrera; you'll never get one at William Morris."

I brought the offer to WMA CEO Walt Zifkin who advised, "we expect you to get many offers but you'll soon realize that number and more in short time ..."

A man named Paul Klein was running NBC at the time, and he too was excited by "TVTV," their daring, adventure and arrogance.

Klein never understood why outside production companies were not permitted to do ostensible "news" stories, which had to originate from the network's news staff.

He believed by using these guerilla filmmakers to do their version of breaking news, it might well change the face of television. But first they would begin in traditional series format.

An idea for a pilot was created -- a standard half hour, scripted comedy sitcom about a news team: The "TVTV Show," written by a group that included Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, directed by Alan Myerson, a conventional half hour director considered a rebel for wearing a beard.

It starred Howard Hesseman, looking very much like George Carlin, Mary Frann and Rene Auberjonois in what could only be described as "fake news" 30 years before the "Daily Show" or "Colbert."

I can visualize Brandon Tartikoff at the pilot's shooting, looking bewildered . Who could blame him? He thought this would be the wave of the future.

Not wildly groundbreaking, satirical or remotely amusing, and ignored by the network series people, it was quickly forgotten by all.

Headquartered in a compound off Melrose in West Hollywood, "TVTV's" group was being diluted each week by the ambitions of individual talent, departing to follow their own dreams and make their own successes.

Allen Rucker became an author in traditional publishing; Hudson Marquez became a gallery artist; Michael Shamberg emerged as a commercial theatrical film producer; the Murray Bros. and Harold Ramis transitioned into mainstream creative and performing talent.

The end of the '70's marked the end of "TVTV," as well.