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Has Tom Weinberg Seen the Future of Television?

What will it be like after The 90's?



This is The 90's:

A manic performance artist hops around your TV screen, a test pattern on his white T-shirt, impersonating television itself. "So! We have a deal!" he says. "You will do what you absolutely need to do, and then, when you're done, you'll come back and look at me. Look at me!"

A beautiful young girl--about 12--sits on a couch talking into the camera. "I have a problem that's called several policy," she says. "Cerebral policy, and it's where my brain is telling my legs that I should walk a funny way." When asked how she finds the strength to deal with being ridiculed, she fidgets a bit and responds, "If you really think about it, they have a problem too. They just wanna hurt somebody because they got hurt."

This is Tom Weinberg:

First you see the cigar, rolling around between his teeth, chewed to a juicy pulp, but rarely lit. Next you notice the voice, which just barely seems to squeeze out from around the edges of his stogie--lazy, slurred, careening from one phrase to the next, rising from a gravel groan to a near falsetto before erupting in a tiny, delighted, high-pitched giggle. Finally you catch the watery, rheumy, unfocused eyes, seemingly dazed from hour after endless hour of watching television.

Pretelevision, actually. Videotapes. Dozens of videotapes pour into Tom Weinberg's tiny Wrigley Building office every week--documentary clips; music videos; animated shorts; raw, unedited tape; short art films. He screens them all--from visionary cabbies to video-crazy African Indian tribes to three SoHo women who sit on the sidewalk doling out batty advice to anyone who stops to chat. He takes unsolicited tapes, he sends correspondents out after stories, he occasionally fires up the old camcorder and shoots some quirky footage himself. And every week he cuts and pastes about an hour's worth of loosely related clips into a not-so-neat package called The 90's, which he beams by satellite to about 150 TV stations across the country (set the VCR for Saturdays at midnight, Channel 11).

It's amazing TV: A variety show of sorts, a mosaic of viewpoints, a leisurely video pastiche--three minutes for this, five for that--with tape drawn from around the world. It takes a while, though, for one extraordinary element to become clear: There's no host. No anchor. No blow-dried puffbrain to provide a prepackaged opinion, a correct perspective on what you're seeing. Just the minds of Weinberg and his producer, Joel Cohen, working behind the scenes, piecing it all together.

It's what Weinberg's been doing for almost 20 years--finding a way to get guerrilla TV into your living room, stealing a bit of production power from a tiny, elite minority in New York and Los Angeles. He did it for 12 years on Image Union, his ground-breaking half-hour videofest on Channel 11, and he's doing it now in The 90's: giving television to real people, to broadcast real perspectives on real life. "He has become a lightning rod for independent TV around the country," says Ed Morris, chairman of the television department at Columbia College.

But Tom Weinberg isn't satisfied with one lone hour one night a week on 150 stations. He's got this vision of starting his own alternative network, independent TV around the clock every day, sort of a thoughtful MTV for people who are willing to think. He calls it "a channel for the rest of us."

Twelve men are filmed sitting in a large room rapping about sex. They are gay, straight, and bi, and they've never met before. The camera settles on a blond man, who says, "Wouldn't it be great to be able to just have sex and not worry about dying? I don't even have fantasies that are not safe sex anymore."

Tom Weinberg was three years old in 1947 when his father bought the first TV set on the block. Maybe in the whole town. A week later, the family got a personal letter from the president of Magnavox thanking them for buying a TV. And so Weinberg's stormy love affair with television began.

But he didn't really consummate the relationship until about 1969. He'd graduated with an MBA from New York University in '68, and gone straight into his father's business--the Py-O-My Baking Mix Company. But his dad died shortly thereafter, the family sold the business, and Weinberg was left with the freedom to choose what he really wanted to do with his life.

So he shopped himself around to every TV station in Chicago, and finally landed at just about the bottom rung of the ladder--Channel 26, where he did the stock market report for 75 bucks a week and eventually helped create and became the white producer for a show called A Black's View of the News--the first all-black news show in the country.

Weinberg's a little fuzzy on what happened next. Half sentences dribble out from around his cigar as he tries to sort things out. At some point he started hanging around the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, writing news spots for Channel 26 until the apathy there drove him away, and he began spending all his time at the trial and none at the station. He phoned in reports for a radio network for a while, but only for a while. Then there was probably something else, but really, none of that much matters. What matters is that somewhere in there--1969, '70--Weinberg's life was changed forever. Somewhere in there, the first portapaks arrived.

A tanned, suspendered, paisley-tied young greedhead cavorts across the screen, singing an ode to consumer culture: "It's what you have, not who you are. No plain ice cream, I want a Dove Bar." In the background, a Greek chorus of business suits croons, "Ooooo-ooooh, yup-yup-yuppie."

Weinberg never sleeps. He tries not to, anyway. He spends his days at the Wrigley Building, or at the Center for New Television, putting together a show. He spends his nights here, in his basement media room in Lakeview, lounging in a director's chair, drinking a Red Stripe, talking on the phone to people all over the country, watching television. The poster over his head shows the earth and a TV screen under the words "Which is the real world?"

It's after one in the morning, and Weinberg's still going strong, pulling tapes from shelves all around the room, from piles on the floor, plugging one after another into the VCR. They're chapters from his oeuvre: a ten-years-after retrospective on the first Mayor Daley; an Emmy-winning sports interview show called Time Out, set in a tavern; Eye Contact, an attempt to string off-the-wall archival video clips together randomly, with no concern for continuity, no desire to make any narrative sense.

Eye Contact looks a bit like a raw, more random version of The 90's. Which doesn't bother Weinberg a bit. "I don't think you have a million new and good ideas in your life," he says. "I mean, The 90's--I could show you shit in this room, I could show you shit without moving, stuff that I've written and planned and plotted and schemed from 15, 20 years ago, that's sort of what this stuff is now getting closer to happening. I don't think it's quite recycling what I did, I think it's catching up with what I thought."

And he launches himself into another pile of tapes, foraging under a desk, searching for something that'll make his point. What he finds instead, what he emerges with, is a boxy, hand-held video camera with the words "Top Value" stenciled in black on the side. "This was it!" he says. "This was hot! This is one that was actually at the conventions!"

"Top Value" is Top Value Television--TVTV--a group Weinberg helped found that used portapaks like the one he's holding to take control of television. "Never occurred to Sony," Weinberg says. "Wasn't the business they were in. They made those things to teach nurses how to be nurses, to teach bricklayers how to be carpenters, to do industrial training for salesmen on how to change tires. Who the fuck knows? It was called the 'handy-looky' camera."

Weinberg and his crew of 30 pioneering video freaks took their handy-lookies down to Miami in 1972 and covered--really covered--the Democratic and Republican national conventions. The documentaries they produced--The World's Largest TV Studio and Four More Years--focused on the minutiae of the conventions, talked to people outside of the spotlight, avoided simply covering announcements, pronouncements, speeches--the orchestrated events that networks have historically sold the public as "news." The news here was that thousands of people who saw the shows on a handful of dinky stations around the country were getting, for the first time, a view of the world that hadn't been sifted through the sensibilities of a handful of white male corporate honchos. They were seeing the conventions as they really happened, in real life. In the real world.

"The programming that goes on the networks is mostly there just to help you get to the next commercial," says Dee Davis, an independent TV producer, staring into the camera. "Or to help sell things. And maybe we could make television better if we thought of it not as a way to sell things but as a way to change people's lives, as a way to give them enthusiasm, to energize them, as a way to cure the sick or make the lame walk."

"The 90's in New York in Rockland County?! Tonight? What channel is it on? Where is it? Who knows--it's fucking out there! Wonderful!" Weinberg is on the phone. Again. "Well, that's good news. I don't know how it got on there, and I don't care, and I think that's the whole point. It should be out there all the time."

He hangs up, his eyes suddenly focused, exuberant. It's just one more station that's picked up his show, but what the hell, a station is a station, an audience is an audience, and every viewer counts when you're fighting to make yourself commercial, when you're hoping to wean yourself, someday soon, from the dole, from the need to get almost all your operating funds from John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grants, which have supported the show from the beginning.

"I'd like to figure out how the kind of stuff that I do and that the people we work with, how that kind of freshness and originality could find a home in commercial TV," Weinberg says. "It would be good for TV, it would be good for us. It would be good. We need the money and we need the exposure."

It's hard to imagine--a commercial network being built around a program that focused an entire show this season on the subject of marijuana, with a strong bias in favor of legalization. But, hey, Weinberg and his cohorts won a $350,000 grant in July from public television to help produce their next season. The kicker is that the grant is officially intended to foster prime-time programming; The 90's may just make it onto the PBS prime-time feed next season. And Weinberg is negotiating to make sure that old shows are run between seasons, keeping the program on year-round.

And why not? Weinberg doesn't have to appeal to everyone. He just has to appeal to a decent-size subculture--the rest of us--a group of people who can embrace his all-inclusive programming philosophy--that anything and everything can be a great subject for television.

"That is absolutely the thing," he says. "If it works, you can celebrate almost everything. You can enjoy it, and it doesn't have to be big ideas, it doesn't have to be big issues, it doesn't have to be safely rolled up. It can be moments."

Somewhere in Asia, a sidewalk chef fires up his skillet, pours in some oil, tosses on some morning-glory leaves, adds a dollop or three of MSG, stirs it all around, then grabs the pan's handle and sends the concoction sailing over his shoulder, about 30 feet into the air. Where his assistant plucks it out of the sky onto a plate and serves it to the waiting customer.

"Look how fucking clear it is! Isn't it beautiful?" Weinberg's playing with his new toy, a Sony Handycam, this tiny thing that weighs under two pounds and fits in the palm of your hand. He's playing back footage he shot at his six-year-old daughter Anna's soccer game, and the stuff is so crystal clear it looks like it could go right on TV, right now.

But Weinberg's looking for something else. He's looking for a moment. One perfect moment.

"It's the magic moment," he says: "Anna goes video. I brought it home Friday, I hadn't even put the battery in, it was a brand-new tape, I brought it around, and she grabbed it. Ziiiiiing! See, this is the first camera that's small enough, that she can put her hand in. It didn't occur to me that that was gonna happen."

Weinberg pushes play, and the screen comes alive. "That's it!" Weinberg says. "This is where she grabs it!"

A young girl takes a camera from her father's hand. The screen lurches, and suddenly everything is seen from a six-year-old's perspective, as she carries the camera around the table, zooming in, pulling out, bumping, swerving, jostling, introducing and interviewing each of her family members in turn: This is my brother, this is my mother, this is my grandfather. This is my father, Tom. This is the discovery of video.

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