The world’s last new Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) rolled off the assembly line at Funai Electric in Japan last week. This marked the end of the original home video format, 60 years after Ampex pioneered the technology and 40 years after JVC introduced it to the mass market.
The Video Home System (VHS) was once the standard for domestic video recording on tape cassettes. Now it is obsolete, overtaken by DVD and other digital formats.
At the height of the VCR era the Funai company sold 15 million VCRs in a year. Last year the world’s last VCR manufacturer sold only 750,000. I was surprised that so many people still use this technology. Probably only because you need one of those clunky old machines to watch your 1980s wedding video.
You would certainly not buy one of the world’s last VCRs for a pleasurable viewing experience. VHS was an indisputably substandard format. Poor resolution made images fuzzy and subtitles hard to read. Aspect ratios were squashed and there was no widescreen. The audio was full of that blight known as tape hiss.
As for operating a VCR, the machine itself was a pain, often jamming tapes. Remember all that time spent rewinding? Failure to do so could get you blacklisted at the video shop.
In this era of Random Access, you may recall that the only way to skip the trailers and ads at the beginning of a videotape was to point the remote at the VCR with your thumb on Fast Forward until you finally reached the beginning of the movie.
Décor-wise, videotapes looked tatty in the lounge. Their plastic cases got warped and wrinkled, although most of the black plastic oblongs that littered our TV room were caseless.
Readers of this blog will know that I am trying to break the Age-Related Complaining Cycle, so I do not mean to whine about the dearly departed technology. I intend rather to contextualise the humble VCR. Sure, it was a soft focus look. But who needs to see every pore, pimple and wrinkle on a person’s skin, as you do now with High Definition TV?
“VCRs and VHS tapes have garnered a cult fan base, with people coming to appreciate the lack of sharpness in quality as a type of warmth, or nostalgia. This has inspired a trend of appreciation towards older formats. Indeed, as the VCR ends its initial run, Kodak is looking to revitalize the Super 8 under the tagline ‘Analog Renaissance’. So if you’re going to miss the VCR, just wait 20 years.”
– Kirsten Howard, Mental Floss
I note the VCR’s passing in order to acknowledge its role in liberating our entertainment lives. The VCR meant that we no longer had to rush home to sit in front of the TV in time to watch our favourite TV shows and films. We could rent videos from the hire shops that sprung up all over town – months, if not years after a film’s cinema release. But our expectations were low then. We were grateful to be able to push a videotape into the jaws of the VCR and press Play, praying that the tape would not be chowed in the process.
The VCR could be set to record shows when we were out or too busy to watch at the scheduled broadcast time, although many battled with the timer. The rise and fall of the VCR was not as big a mark on the entertainment timeline as the dawn of the digital age. Yet it heralded significant changes in habits and perceptions around media consumption.
The VCR was responsible for the demise of screen watching as a group activity. With recorded videos available for repeat viewings, anyone could choose what to watch, when and where to watch it, and who to watch with. The VCR was an early shaper of the Personalised Viewing Experience.
VCRs made us bemoan the end of the family dinner around a table. Yet now we may yearn for what replaced it: plates on laps in front of the TV. At least then we were all watching the same show, so we could comment and laugh together. Now it’s each man, woman and child to his own digital device. What did you say? I can’t hear you with my headphones on.
The large, heavy VCR and its bulky tapes were part of the old school notion that Bigger Is Better. A box set of an entire TV series made you feel like you were getting something substantial.
But the tapes took up so much space, getting dusty on ever more shelves. Now we can store vast numbers of programmes, movies and music on a tiny flash drive.
I am interested to note that it’s not only older people who are reminiscing about the demise of the VCR. I was amused by the musings of a young Geek Culture blogger who grew up with his parents’ VCR and recently discovered a pile of old videotapes at a thrift shop.
“So I guess VHS nostalgia is a thing now. Someday when my (future) kids are used to having movies beamed directly into their brains I’m going to force them to sit down and watch some random Disney shorts compilation on a grainy, glorious VHS tape.”