This month, the world’s last manufacturer of VCRs will manufacture its last VCR. Sure, you won’t notice that they’re gone. But it’s a good time to remember what they meant when they were here.
VCRs and, more specifically, the VHS format they supported may have spent two decades at the top of the format food chain, but they didn’t start that way. When VHS came to our shores in the late ’70s, it was already a year behind Betamax, which did pretty much the exact same thing.
The VCR is one of the few technologies that passed the highest bar we can possibly set: It made the previously impossible commonplace.
Well, maybe not exact; Betamax was better. I’m sorry, but it’s true. It offered higher-resolution playback, and Sony’s gilded brand behind it. Between that and a strong lead, Betamax should have stopped VHS adoption before it ever started. Instead? It took less than a year for VHS to overtake it, and in a decade Betamax was essentially dead. VHS taught us a lesson that’s played out over and over in format wars since: “affordable” and “open” almost always trumps “good.”
It helped, too, that it came strong (though expensive) out of the gate. The first three movies in the format? The Sound of Music, Patton, and M*A*S*H. The average retail price of each tape was about $70 a pop.
It sounds so alien, doesn’t it? Especially compared to our current world of one-tap gratification. Spending that much money on a sandwich-sized plastic rectangle seems like the act of a madman. But try, if you can, to imagine being able to watch your favorite movies only in theaters, or failing that, only when television programmers wanted you to. Then, suddenly, you can watch them at home, whenever you want to, as many times as you like. This was magic.
There are statistics, I’m sure, that pinpoint the exact day VHS achieved ubiquity, but I’m comfortable measuring it by when one showed up in my family’s living room in the late ’80s. I come from a long line of proud late adopters; my great-great-grandfather was probably the last guy in County Cork to embrace indoor plumbing. When we finally got ours, the world opened up just a crack.
Our timing was good. By then, entire industries had spooled out from VHS tape. Blockbuster rental stores, where scarcity encouraged new discoveries. Fast-rewind machines, because every generation is exactly as impatient as their tools will allow. And most importantly, I’d argue, a new breed of affordable camcorders that put family memories on equal footing in our bookshelves with The Goonies and Jaws.
It’s not that home video didn’t exist before. It was just never this easy. Hilariously inconvenient compared to pulling out an iPhone, sure, but even the absurdities of it had some value. Disparate events all smashed up against each other on the same cassette, abrupt jumps from swim meets to birthday parties to graduations. There was no skip function, no individual files to select. There was just play and pause and fast forward and rewind. On a VHS tape you can’t avoid a memory, you can only speed it up.
Unlike most technologies, VHS was never bad. It just wasn’t as good as what came next.
For what it’s worth, the ability to record to VHS also introduced the world to push-button piracy. FBI warnings before every rental reminded the world they’d be risking a $250,000 fine and five years in prison for duping their contents. Fair enough! My preferred use was recording TV shows to catch up on later, a sort of proto-DVR. How else were we supposed to keep up with Hey Dude?
The more recent history of the VCR should be more familiar, and its death doesn’t require much analysis. In 1997, DVDs showed up. The end. The only surprising part is that the denouement took nearly 20 years. Although, maybe not. Unlike most technologies, VHS was never bad. It just wasn’t as good as what came next.
It’s easy enough to shrug off the death of VHS, if for no other reason than most of us assume it had died years ago. It feels like eulogizing lead paint. Why? We just moved on to better paint.
That belies the VCR’s importance, though. It’s one of the few technologies that passed the highest bar we can possibly set: It made the previously impossible commonplace. It won’t be missed. But it should sure as hell be remembered.