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Please rewind: a final farewell to the VCR

I grew up with video cassette recorders (VCRs). I still remember rushing off to the the video store to hire the latest movie, hoping that there was at least one copy still on the shelf that didn’t have the “Sorry I’m Out” tag placed in the cover. By Marc C-Scott

In 2001, despite the emergence of DVDs, the portfolio for my undergraduate degree application was sent on VHS. That’s all they accepted.

I still have a cupboard full of VHS tapes: films I purchased as well as my own video work. But now, viewing these tapes will become far more difficult.

The last manufacturer of video cassette recorders (VCRs), the Funai Corporation of Japan, has stated that it will stop manufacturing at the end of July. Yes July 2016. You could be forgiven for thinking that the manufacturing of VCRs had already ceased.

Funai cites the decline in VCR sales and the difficulty in finding the required parts to manufacture them. That said, 750,000 units were sold worldwide in 2015, although that pales compared to Funai’s sales of 15 million per year when the VCR’s popularity peaked.

The end of VCRs comes only a year after news that Sony would stop the manufacturing of Betamax, a tape format that had a long battle with VHS.

While recording television on magnetic tape might seem primitive by today’s digital standards, we should acknowledge that the humble video cassette recorder had a tremendous impact on both the media industry and how we consume media.

Moreover, there are some striking parallels between the impact of VCRs a few decades ago and the impact of digital technologies, like on-demand video and TV catch-up services, today.

Rewind

The first tape recorder is reported to have been developed by Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Company in 1956: the Ampex VRX-1000. Later this same year CBS in the US broadcast the first delayed program using the Ampex Mark IV.

Prior to tape recording technology, most television programs were broadcast live with no recording or archiving. Film was used for some events and broadcasts, but it was expensive. This fundamentally changed the approach of television stations, enabling them to record shows, and also to archive and re-broadcast them as repeats.

Fred Pfost “First public video tape recorder demonstrations”

However, VCRs also shook up the entertainment industry in other ways. Actors and writers went on strike in 1985 over the percentage paid to them for work released on video.

VCRs were also blamed for reducing movie theatre attendance and putting a damper on box-office takings over the 1985 summer season.

Between the popularity of television and the rise of the VCR, movie theatres even experimented with primitive 3D to lure audiences into the cinema. Sound familiar?

Piracy also became an issue in the 1980s, with the VCR enabling individuals to record television shows and movies, or copy them for wider distribution or sale.

Australia embraces the VCR

In 1981, only 3% of Australian households (or 150,000 homes) had a VCR. That number rose quickly, and by 1993 80% of Australian households (4.5 million homes) had a VCR.

One reason for the rapid uptake was the dramatic drop in price of VCR technology. In 1976, the average price of a VCR was A$4,684 (A$8,838 in today’s dollars). By 1993, the average price was less than 10% of the 1976 price, at A$446 (A$842 in today’s money).

The number of movies available also skyrocketed, from a measly two films in 1978 to 33,000 titles in 1993.

The uptake of VCRs began to slow by 1995. Over the next five years, VCR ownership rose only 6% to 87% of households. However, many households at this time had more than one VCR, peaking at 23% by 2000.

The first major blow to VHS was the introduction of DVDs. In the period from 2001 to 2004, the percentage of households with one VCR declined to 86%. Over the same period, the percent of Australian metropolitan homes with a DVD player rose from 12% to 62%.

An inauspicious end to an era.
Rob Pearce/Flickr, CC BY

Interestingly, SBS claimed that its audience figures were higher than they appeared due to individuals taping programs and passing them around to others who couldn’t get the SBS broadcast signal.

This raised concerns about how to accurately track ratings associated with this type of viewing. It’s an argument being repeated today when it comes to video-on-demand and TV catch-up services.

Ghosting

Today if you place a VCR in front of the younger generation, you will more than likely get a result like these:

Kids react to a VCR.

But it’s worth remembering that VCRs helped to fundamentally change the way we create and consume media. They gave us a hint of what it’s like to be unshackled from broadcast timetables, allowed us to fast-forward through advertisements, enabled some to pirate and distribute movies, and started to chip into the dominance of the movie theatre.

In fact, many of the issues that are pertinent today to video-on-demand and TV catch-up are echoed by the issues presented by VCRs.

Note: this article has been edited to clarify the distinction between tape recording technology and VCRs, which is one version of the technology.

The Conversation

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