(By Steven Overly, Washington Post, 22 July 2016)
The videocassette recorder that revolutionized home entertainment by allowing television audiences to capture their favorite shows on tape and watch them at their leisure will die later this month after a decade-long battle with obsolescence. It is roughly 60 years old. Known to every child of the 1980s and ’90s as the VCR, the machine became a fixture under the television sets in households across the United States, and indeed the world, as a means for watching movies with terrible resolution, forced viewing of grainy family milestones, and recording your grandmother’s daytime melodramas.
The VCR’s demise may come as a shock, mostly because many thought it was already dead. But Japan-based Funai Electronic Co. has continued to manufacture the machines even as several generations of superior entertainment technology have come to market. Now, executives say that a lack of demand and difficulty acquiring parts has convinced them to cease production at the end of July. Funai Electric Co. declined to comment on the passing.
Though the VCR will soon be gone, its legacy cannot be forgotten. Its influence is evident today in the binge-watching and time-shifting habits that have become a norm in home entertainment. Television and film were once by appointment only; stations would air your sitcom at a slated time, and studios would release movies during set windows. You watched when they wanted.
All that has changed. Viewers today increasingly watch TV programs on their own schedule and bulldoze through new episodes back-to-back-to-back in rapid succession. But that phenomenon really began with the rise of VCRs and those black, stackable VHS tapes they played. The technology paved the way for digital video recorders, such as TiVo, and streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, to gain traction with consumers. “If you were to chart this as a family tree, you would put the VCR at the top and you would see all of these things sprouting out of it,” said Pete Putman, a consultant to digital display companies and member of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.
But the life of the VCR, like all things, was one of complication and mystery. Why, for example, was the machine hellbent on eating every favorite VHS cassette? How did your cat manage to unspool 1,000 feet of tape from that black plastic box? And what do you mean you accidentally taped over our wedding video? Now, we may never know the answer.
The birth date and birthplace of the VCR depend on how far back you want to look. Video recording technology itself dates to the early 1920s, but the company Ampex is credited with developing the first commercially viable videotape recorder in 1956. The machine was bulky, expensive and designed primarily for professional broadcasters. A variety of home video recorders from Phillips, Telcan and Sony, among others, came to market over the next two decades, but widespread consumer adoption remained elusive. In fact, VCRs found their earliest customers in hotel chains during the 1970s, said Mark Schubin, a technology consultant and member of the Emmy Engineering Committee.
The heyday came in the 1980s and and ’90s, when VCRs exploded in popularity. The number of households with VCRs climbed from 14 percent in 1985 to 66 percent in 1990, according to Nielsen data. VCR penetration peaked at about 90 percent of households in 2005. But waiting in the wings was a young and powerful rival itching to take the spotlight. In December of 2006 Nielsen reported that more homes already had DVD players than VCRs. It’s been a slow death ever since.
We should also bow our heads in remembrance of the VCR for popularizing the concept of file sharing and expanding the consumption of adult films. People started to share the earlier and most expensive VHS tapes in a rent-for-use scheme that would eventually see mass commercialization in the form of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. The practice was invigorated in 1984 when the Supreme Court ruled that recording TV shows for home use was not copyright infringement.
Movie studios, which once staunchly opposed the idea, turned VCRs and home recording technology into a lucrative rental business. Movies that did not perform well in theaters or that were more suited for, ahem, private viewing often found a second commercial life on America’s flickering TV sets. “It became a cash cow for them and generated lots and lots of revenue,” said C. Samuel Craig, director of the entertainment, media and technology program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “And then it slowly began to disappear, and it was supplanted by the DVD.”
And though other vintage technologies have experienced a hipster renaissance — think Polaroid cameras and vinyl music — when it comes to VCRs there are likely to be no survivors. “Unlike vinyl and turntables where audiophiles do have a nostalgia in that it’s a richer, deeper sound, the VCR offers really no advantages over new technology,” Craig said. Plus “aesthetically it’s nice to see an old phonograph with a wax cylinder, but there’s nothing terribly aesthetic about an old VCR machine.” May it rest in peace.