In Memoriam: The VCR, 1956 – 2016

by JESSICA GOLDSTEIN –

The Videocassette Recorder, a piece of technology already so obsolete you would be forgiven for not realizing it hadn’t died long ago, finally kicked it for good last Thursday, when Funai Corporation of Japan, the last known VCR manufacturer on the face of the Earth, announced it would cease production by the end of July. According to the New York Times, a company spokesperson said Funai will keep on selling VCRs “though its subsidiary until inventory runs out and will provide maintenance services as long as it can.”

The VCR is survived by the technologies that fueled its demise, which rule for now (the DVD), the foreseeable future (the DVR, streaming video) and probably forever (piracy). It was 60 years old.

It was a player and it crushed a lot (of the competition)

The Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Company introduced “the world’s first economically and technically successful magnetic videotape recorder,” the VR1000 — colloquially known as the Mark-4 video recorder — in the mid-1950s. As Fred Pfost, an engineer at the time, wrote in a blog post, he and his team introduced the Mark IV recorder at the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters’ convention on April 16, 1956. They were announced by the vice president of CBS; Pfost surreptitiously recorded the opening remarks and, as soon as they were over, pressed play. (This was new invention in and of itself: Not just the first working video recorder, but the first instant replay! The sports world is forever in his debt.)

“There were about ten seconds of total silence until they suddenly realized just what they were seeing on the twenty video monitors located around the room,” Pfost wrote. “Pandemonium broke out with wild clapping and cheering for five full minutes. This was the first time in history that a large group (outside of Ampex) had ever seen a high quality, instantaneous replay of any event…The experience still brings tears to my eyes when I recall this event.”

These Ampex VCRs were prohibitively expensive for most; they cost $50,000. The first video tape recorder for home use was the Sony CV-2000, which was marketed in 1965. The reel-to-reel CV-2000 could record and play back black and white images, but most of those machines wound up being used for medical and industrial purposes, according to Sony’s history site.

The future was closer than ever with the hip-sounding Sony U-matic, which came on the market in 1971. It could fast-forward and rewind! Then the Philips VCR, made available to consumers in 1972, changed the game with its first model, the N1500, that incorporated all the best qualities of recorders that came before it. There were basic controls — the play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind buttons — plus a clock with a timer, so you could record shows when you weren’t even home.

How the porn industry saved the VHS tape

Sony’s Betamax came out in 1975; hot on its heels was the Betamax’s rival, the VHS format by JVC.

VHS (Video Home System) was developed in 1976. Its features were impressive: A super-compact two-hour tape, longer playtime, and speedier rewinding and fast-forwarding. The JVC system, called Vidstar, was quite pricey. The VCR would set you back $1,280 (as Wired reported, it would be $4,600 in inflation-adjusted dollars). The blank tapes were $20, or $72 in today-bucks. Still, it was appealing: Back in the day, before every Marvel movie was approximately eighteen hours long, a two-hour tape was enough to record an entire feature film. The Betamax tapes had only half that recording capability and were more expensive than VHS-players.

JVC licensed its format to other electronics producers, filling the marketplace with VHS machines,Wired reported. “In just its first year, the VHS format took 40 percent of the business away from Sony. By 1987, about 90 percent of the $5.25 billion market of VCRs sold in the United States were based on the VHS format.”

The fight for market share between these two incompatible formats lasted ten years, until 1985, when JVC introduced VHS HQ (high quality) and, two years later, Super VHS. What really fueled the victory, though, was allegedly not that crisp sound and image but an even more powerful force: Pornography. Legend has it that Sony, pure as the driven snow, would not allow smut to sully its Betamax tapes. JVC and the rest of the VHS scene operated by more of a live-and-let-live ethos; powered by this nation’s unstoppable thirst for pornography, the VHS emerged as the dominant format.

Before Netflix and chill: A trip to Blockbuster

Today’s children may never grasp the infuriating feeling of getting home from the video store– you know what, I’m getting ahead of myself. A video store was like a Netflix you had to pace through, where you could easily run into people you knew. This limited what you could rent, because what if Josh — not marching band Josh but Josh in a band which is a completely different thing — knew you were renting the Lindsay Lohan remake of The Parent Trap for the eight billionth time? You would die, RIP you, like the VCR is dying now.

At first consumers shopped at small, cool video stores, and the people who worked at these establishments were medium-pretentious: snobbier than independent bookstore employees, less condescending than record store staffers. Those small stores were crushed, as small stores often are, by the entry of a corporate behemoth, Blockbuster. Blockbuster went defunct in 2014, but just twelve years earlier, it was the king of the video rental market; the chain boasted over 2,800 stores worldwide. Sometimes you would go to Blockbuster, or your local video store, on a Friday night after waiting all week to see the movie of your choice only to find that your movie of choice had been rented out. There was nothing you could do. You were helpless in the face of this devastation.

But Blockbuster was edged off the throne by Netflix, which — from its beginnings as a DVD-delivery service in 1997 to its present-form as streaming hub — was something of an accessory to the murder of the VCR. As lore has it, Netflix founder Reed Hastings started his company in part out of frustration that Blockbuster charged him a $40 late fee for failing to return Apollo 13 on time. (Late fees were Blockbuster’s bread and butter: In 2000, the chain took in a stunning $800 million in late fees, 16 percent of its revenue for the year.)

Anyway, back to today’s children! For it is these youths, those who are too young to bear the mantle of millennial, who can scarcely fathom the struggles their elders faced. (Do we have a name for them yet? Are they “Generation Z”? Snapchildren? God I hope not.) They can never know how it felt to be ready to watch a movie — popcorn all popped, blanket just so, the good corner of the couch secured while your sibling was running to the bathroom like an amateur — only to discover after sticking that VHS tape into your VCR that the previous renters had been so callous as to notbe kind and rewind. This feeling, the waiting during the interminable whirring of the rewind, was buffering’s ancestor.

Later than same evening, an entirely enjoyable night with the family spent watching That Thing You Do! could be ruined by what was, looking back, the reasonable request of a parent to rewind the video before returning it to the shelf.

I made that glitch famous

In theory one could use a VCR to record television shows. This liberated audiences from the time-space continuum, allowing us to watch television shows on our schedules. We didn’t have to be beholden to some corporation’s idea of when shows are supposed to air! No, we could watch what we wanted to watch when we wanted to watch it. Free at last, free at last, etc.

But freedom in theory so rarely manifests as freedom in fact. What would actually end up happening is you would set the recording for Tuesday night on the WB at 8:00 p.m. for an hour — to do this, you entered a bright screen in a shade technically known as Doogie Howser Blue; this was the secret control center of the TV set and every time you used it you were convinced you’d broken the precious television for good — and even if you did everything right, some baseball game or breaking news or whatever would run late.

Of course your VCR couldn’t adjust like some nimble, modern thing. No, the VCR was as clunky and slow as it looked. It was not a “smart” device. In the 1990s, we were naive, and we did not ask our devices to be smart. We thought: We can be smart, and we can operate the devices, and that will be enough.

So the VCR would just start recording at eight like you told it to and then stop recording at nine, cutting off the last eleven minutes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And because this was the real deal dark ages, of dial-up internet and nothingness, you couldn’t just download the episode somewhere or even read a witty, informative recap, nope, you just had to LIVE there, in the not-knowing, until next week’s “previously, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer” gave you the bullet points. A person might have thought: That this baseball game, a sport for men, is displacing Buffy, a feminist superhero who fights against the forces of darkness, is a metaphor too perfect to invent. And also: Why is this technology so flawed and annoying to use?

Families also stored home videos on VHS tapes, and then teenagers (it was always a teenager) would record over these priceless memories — competitive rounds of Coke and Pepsi at bar mitzvahs, bowling alley birthday parties captured with that shaky, handheld Blair Witch cinematography — replacing them with something else of arguably equal importance, like the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards.

Literally dead

The VCR was killed, finally, by a one-two punch of technological advancements: The arrival of the DVD (first sold in the United States in 1997 and ruling the marketplace by 2000) and, in 1999, the DVR;TiVo unveiled its Personal Television Service that January and shipped its first TiVO DVR on March 31. And these technologies, too, can probably feel irrelevance on the horizon, as streaming rises like the climate-changed-tides and “TV” becomes less a physical thing, bound to the box itself, and more of a style of storytelling that can be accessed on any platform at any time.

Redbox, a DVD ATM, is still a thing, though revenue is in decline. Most of the kiosks are outside convenience stores, lingering there even when no one has much use for them, like 14-year-old boys on skateboards.

What was once the dominant entertainment viewing and recording device of its day is now the kind of thing modern, iPad-owning toddlers look at in fascination and horror, wondering how we ever lived in such lame, inefficient times. VCRs used to feel like the future. Obsolescence, like death, comes for us all. RIP, VCRs.

 

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress