The 1991 clip of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers was replayed again and again on television, the early version of video gone viral. It heralded an era of a now-endless reality loop that plays online 24-7.
Rodney King not the first victim of video gone viral
LOS ANGELES // The video was shocking when played for the first time: a shadowy, jumpy clip of police officers slamming their batons against a fallen man.
Then the 1991 clip of a prone Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers was replayed again and again on television, the early version of video gone viral. It heralded an era of a now-endless reality loop that plays online 24-7, and fuelled a growing public hunger for life captured on the fly - offered up as news, entertainment or both.
Reality in all of its purportedly manipulation-free guises is the 21st century's playbook, from citizen-journalist cellphone video grabs of world events to the unscripted television shows that let us peer into the lives of people hungry for fame.
King, 47, whose life ended on Sunday in the swimming pool of his suburban home, was not the first unwilling player in the era that began with fingers hitting the "record" button on increasingly portable and affordable video cameras, and then posting them online in real time.
The cliched local TV newscast promo "Film at 11" seems as outdated as cooking without a microwave oven.
"We are all guilty of this obsession with the tape, the clip. How many kids have grown up where dad is pointing the camera as they were exiting the womb?" said the popular-culture professor Robert Thompson of Syracuse University. "If a camera isn't present, it gives you the sense that whatever happened isn't important."
The syndicated series Cops, which tags along with US police officers, began in 1989 with its authorised but still startling take on territory once owned by police dramas.
The Cops creator, John Langley, said he never imagined how many programmes would ape the show's you-are-there approach.
"Maybe the world of video saturation has become excessive but, on the other hand, there's obviously a market and an appetite for real video," he said.
Another wing of reality, one shaped by overt manipulation, opened only three years later. MTV's The Real World acts as puppet master, gathering young contestants in a house and recording and editing their interactions.
Neither of the shows has worn out its welcome after more than two decades, with television making space for more and more incarnations of the reality genre.
What happened to King, however, opened a remarkable and searing new chapter in video's influence.
It had long been the job of television news cameras to document history and inform members of the public, who could serve as eyewitnesses but not reporters and certainly not camera operators. The most noteworthy exception: Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas businessman who recorded the critical seconds of John F Kennedy's 1963 assassination on 8mm film. Zapruder guarded the film, citing fears of exploitation, and it did not appear on US network television until 1975, on ABC's Good Night America.
King was assaulted outside the home of a man, George Holliday, who owned a new video camera, used it and swiftly gave a copy of the video to a television station. Its repeated showings inflamed racial tensions and were sure, many thought, to guarantee a guilty verdict against the officers.
Harland Braun, who represented one of the officers in a federal trial, said: "If there hadn't been a video there would have never been a case. In those days, you might have claimed excessive force but there would have been no way to prove it."
But defence lawyers in the predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley, California, made the video part of their case for the officers' innocence, dissecting it frame by frame to argue that King incited his own beating. The jury acquitted three officers and declared a mistrial for a fourth.