Conversations with Mark Anstendig: On creating “Rewind the 90s – The Reality Revolution”

How did you get involved with Rewind the 90’s?

We collaborated with Utopia, a UK-based company. They’ve previously produced similar shows with a predominantly British focus. However, our goal was to introduce a more American cultural perspective. We aimed to blend British production values, including UK-based producers and editors, with my insights and a team of writers.

Additionally, we had about three American producers on board. We had all collaborated in the past, particularly on VH1 projects, so we were well-versed in creating content with an American touch. Still, we wanted the project to have international appeal. Many questioned this unique blend, but I believe it was a well-balanced union. I especially think of the camcorder episode, which subtly hinted at our current reality.

I often refer to this phase as the beginning of the “crowdsourcing culture.” Back then, traditional media gatekeepers predominated. Basic cable had limited influence, and viewers were mostly subjected to content from three major networks, with a fourth emerging.

The public had little say in what they watched; much was dictated by the available technology and associated costs. However, things changed. Reflecting on old New York Times articles, I remember concerns about running out of videos to broadcast – amusingly, a fear that was never realized.

The introduction of the camcorder, credited to an American inventor, was groundbreaking. This tech evolution is reminiscent of today’s YouTube era, where anyone can effortlessly upload videos, from funny animal clips to personal experiences. This shift had profound cultural implications.

Our episode aimed to highlight the connection between the camcorder’s popularity and the subsequent rise of reality TV. The affordability and accessibility of filming equipment democratized television production. Shows like “Cops” emerged, emphasizing raw, unfiltered footage – a stark departure from the polished aesthetics we were accustomed to. This “lo-fi” approach resonated with audiences, who valued authenticity over production quality.

This evolution in viewing preferences, spurred by the camcorder, shaped reality TV and its sub-genres. Films like the Blair Witch Project harnessed the camcorder’s immediacy and intimacy, delivering an authentic experience despite being fictional. This journey, from technological innovations enabling consumer content creation to the foundation of reality TV, is indeed fascinating.

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Looking back what, are there any sort of historical events that were captured that stick out to you that influenced how things are today?

For me, reflecting on this is truly fascinating. I lived in Southern California in the early ’90s. To give some context—and I might be dating myself here—I began my career as a Production Assistant (PA) in a news organization, specifically NBC. My early days in television news coincided with major events, like O.J. Simpson’s chase.

But even before that, I have a vivid memory of being in the NBC newsroom, constantly witnessing helicopters interrupting our programming. They would frequently break into the schedule to broadcast yet another high-speed chase on a freeway.

Living in Los Angeles during this period was a unique experience, particularly because these chases started to dominate local news. It was a transformative time in media, and as someone just starting in the news industry, it caught my full attention. Bob Tur, famously dubbed the “King of Chopper Wars”, played a pivotal role in popularizing this genre. I distinctly recall seeing those endless chases and being somewhat traumatized.

I’m originally from LA and was familiar with the New York media scene too, so witnessing this shift felt surreal. Before long, every other network began adopting this approach, and it became an increasingly common sight.

On a personal note, those days are etched clearly in my memory. It was a significant period in my life as a budding journalist, grappling with the blurred lines of media ethics. The news director’s dilemma resonated with me deeply. As a young journalist, I often found myself thinking, “Is this really what news has come to?” The moral implications of televising potentially dangerous situations—where at best, someone’s tires might blow out, and at worst, there could be a fatal shooting—weighed heavily on my mind. Watching these events unfold was both intriguing and deeply challenging.

How did it foreshadow today’s 24/7, self-documented world where there are actually a lot of ethically dubious things that people watch and on occasion do, all in the name of views and clicks?

That indeed raises an intriguing perspective. My journey began in the ’90s, and during this era, I observed a significant shift – power was gradually transitioning to the hands of the everyday individual. The initial phase revolved primarily around the democratization of camera technology, not necessarily internet proliferation. However, with the advent of the internet and platforms like YouTube in the early 2000s, the dynamics changed dramatically. Suddenly, there were no barriers. Anyone could upload anything, leading to an overwhelming influx of content.

The challenge arose when people began placing more trust in amateur content on platforms like YouTube, often perceiving them as more genuine than established news media. It’s challenging to pinpoint the exact moment when public trust in mainstream media began to wane while reliance on user-generated content surged. Nevertheless, these two trajectories certainly intersected at some point. This phenomenon can be attributed to the democratization of information dissemination, especially through videos, juxtaposed against the declining trust in traditional media outlets.

Moreover, as mainstream media grappled with a highly competitive landscape, the quest for profitability perhaps compromised their integrity. The need to secure every advertising dollar possibly influenced their content choices, leading them to prioritize sensational over substantial. The ‘chopper wars’ serve as a prime example: Why would a reputable news outlet continuously air high-speed chases? The answer lies in the undeniable appeal of such content – millions would tune in, guaranteeing high viewership.

In essence, this confluence of events – the rise of user-generated content and the perceived decline in media ethics due to commercial pressures – has woven the intricate ethical tapestry we find ourselves examining today.

Are there any memories that stick out?

It’s fascinating to reflect on my time in a news organization during the emergence of camcorders in journalism. Initially, there was significant resistance to the idea of producers wandering around with these handheld devices.

The traditional mindset held a distinct line between professional equipment and consumer gadgets, reminiscent of the “separation of church and state.” At that time, we relied heavily on beta cams, which were bulky and required robust cameramen to operate.

Alongside the cameraman, a dedicated sound person was essential. Together, they’d go out to cover news in the traditional fashion.

However, the onset of the nimble camcorder changed the game. Despite the compromised video and audio quality, by the late ’90s and early 2000s, it became evident that there was a vast volume of news to be captured. The agility of simply having a camcorder made it easier to document on-the-fly, without waiting for an entire camera crew to arrive.

Moreover, the shift in content sourcing was significant. News organizations began to lean into camcorder footage, similar to how home video shows did.

During major incidents, like floods or fires, the priority shifted. Instead of focusing on professional coverage, the immediate question became whether there were people on the ground – be they victims, survivors, or heroes – capturing the events in real-time. Such firsthand accounts and visuals, even if not of professional quality, added an authentic layer to news reporting. This transformation in news gathering became more pronounced as we transitioned into the 2000s.

How much do you think the Rodney King tape played in that role?

When the Rodney King video surfaced, it was undeniably shocking. While the brutality depicted was surprising in itself, what was equally unexpected was the fact that such an event had been captured and made accessible to the public. For many mainstream Americans, this was their first direct encounter with police brutality, despite communities of color in the U.S. having experienced and spoken about it for decades.

Fast forward to today, and we have even more access to similar videos. Yet, the Rodney King incident stands as a watershed moment in our history. It was a pivotal reckoning, highlighting how technology gave us the power to document and expose police misconduct in real time. The incident, captured not by a professional crew but by a bystander with rudimentary equipment, emphasized that you didn’t need high-end tools to unveil the truth. This democratization of documentation, courtesy of technology, was revolutionary.

The incident and the subsequent LA uprising demonstrated the extent to which technology and journalism had become inextricably linked, a bond that has only deepened with time.

IMAGE CREDIT: Screenshot.

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