- Associated Press - Monday, June 18, 2012

LOS ANGELES (AP) - 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 TV, the early version of video gone viral. It ushered in an era of a now-endless reality loop that plays 24/7 online, and fueled a growing public hunger for life captured on the fly _ offered up as news, entertainment or sometimes as 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 Facebook oversharing to the unscripted TV shows that let us peer into the lives of people hungry for fame, or a second helping.

King, 47, whose turbulent life ended 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The cliched local TV newscast promo, “Film at 11,” seems as outdated as cooking without a microwave oven. In this impatient world, we want it all right now.

“We all are 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 media expert Robert Thompson of Syracuse University. “If a camera isn’t present, it gives you the sense that whatever happened isn’t important.”

The syndicated TV series “Cops,” which tags along with law enforcement officers nationwide, debuted in 1989 with its authorized but still startling take on territory once owned by TV’s police dramas. That same year brought “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and its lighthearted approach, the forerunner of today’s online surfeit of cute kids, pets and marriage proposals.

“Cops” creator and executive producer John Langley said he never imagined how many programs 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 a scant three years later. MTV’s “The Real World” acts as puppet master, gathering young contestants in a house and recording and editing their interactions.

None of the trio of shows has worn out its welcome after more than two decades, with TV making space for more and more incarnations of the moneysaving 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 TV 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 President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination on 8MM film.

Zapruder guarded the film, citing fears of exploitation, and it didn’t air on network TV until 1975, on ABC’s “Good Night America” (to explosive effect, despite the time lag.)

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 TV station. Its repeated airing inflamed racial tensions nationwide and was sure, many thought, to guarantee a guilty verdict against the officers.

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