Useful Notes / VCR
VHS player made by JVC ca. 1996

"Be kind, rewind."

(If you're looking for the 2012 Found Footage horror movie V/H/S, try HERE)

Short for Video Cassette Recorder, now old technology used to supply video for personal use, allowing people to watch television programs they have recorded, and pre-recorded movies, most prominantly in the VHS format.

Videotape has been around since the 1950s, and the first cassette-based systems came out in the early 1970s (Sony's U-matic in 1971, Avco's Cartrivision and Philips' VCR in 1972), but it wasn't until 1975 that the first format to achieve any popularity, Betamax (a downsized, simplified version of U-matic), was introduced by Sony. JVC came out with VHS in 1976 in Japan, and RCA and Panasonic brought it to the US a year later; VHS became much more popular due to the 2 hour recording time (twice that of the first Betamax) and lower price. Sony would retaliate with x2 (later named BII) and x3 (BIII), but Panasonic and RCA had created a 4-hour speed on their machine, and JVC introduced a 6-hour speed (EP/SLP), stopping there due to issues with quality and tracking. JVC also licensed the technology to many other companies (Magnavox, Sharp, Panasonic, RCA, GE, Emerson, etc.), which allowed for many more machines to be produced. Despite Beta's higher audio/video quality and the introduction of "Beta hi-fi" (copied by VHS with linear stereo, and then with "VHS hi-fi" which worked similarly to the Beta version, but recorded the signal onto the tape differently), their high price and shorter run time made Beta obsolete by the 90s. Rumor has it that the porno industry's preference for VHS is the main factor for Beta's failure in the 80s.

While Betamax itself has been dead for years (Sony kept it on life support in Japan until 2002, but popular support for it elsewhere had evaporated a good decade before that), the professional Betacam variants of the format have remained in use well into the HD era, and are only now starting to be replaced with more modern Flash Memory and hard disk formats. As for VHS, its high-end formats (Super VHS, W-VHS and D-VHS) never caught on the way Betacam did, and when the broadcast industry started switching to digital in the mid-1990s, they generally chose DV instead. U-matic, Beta's parent format, was never popular for home use, but saw a lot of usage in professional circles and in places like school libraries; it was eventually replaced in those roles by VHS (for educational and low-end commercial use) and Betacam.

For pre-recorded material such as films from Hollywood, it has all but been supplanted by the DVD player, but for people recording their own programs such as for time shifting (recording a show and viewing it later), the VCR was king through the 1980's to the 2000's. It was slowly supplanted by DVRs (such as TiVo and ReplayTV) and DVD recorders, many of which use special services which spoon out TV Guide-type schedule listings for the machines to automatically record programs with. It is still useful as a means for recording and keeping television programs however, whereas DVR and the like are far less permanent. The primary remaining stronghold of the VCR is the camcorder, in which hard disks and optical discs have proven too sensitive to rough handling and solid state storage costs far too much at videotape's 25GB+ capacities (though ever-dropping SDCard prices and dual-mode still picture/motion video digital cameras are threatening to make camcorders obsolete).

Another good reason to keep an old VCR around is old movies that you find at the thrift store for $1 or less. Sure you could probably download them if you wanted to, but if you're already going to a thrift store anyway, the impulse-buy convenience of it all is worth the dollar. (Not to mention that some of these are older titles, may have been controversially altered in later releases like the Star Wars original trilogy, and/or are so rare that they will never be made available on DVD.) That, and some movie companies have released special VHS editions of their films in the 2010s, particularly Retraux movies or those centering around VHS itself, like the 2009 Gorgon Video release of The House of the Devil, a limited-edition issue of Rewind This!, and special copies of...well, V/H/S. Alternatively, if you just want to play the tapes, there are devices available for only about $5 or so that are capable of playing cassette tapes, but don't have any recording capability. These are called VCPs, and some video-rental stores in the US, at least, used to rent them out alongside the tapes if you needed one.

Because VCRs were the first really popular video format, the first big video rental stores carried them. It was a minor Rite of Passage for teens and young adults in the 1980's and 1990's to spend a certain amount of time standing around the the video store with your friends trying to decide which movie you would rent and whose house it would be watched at. A common sticker on the tapes was "Be kind, rewind" in hopes that users would rewind the tapes so the next user could watch them straight from the beginning without having to rewind the tape first.

People usually fast-forwarded through the FBI Warning Screen, and the Coming Attractions, which is why often on DVDs you cannot skip, fast forward, or use the menu button during them. When Bonus Material was included (rare, but did happen), they usually followed after the main feature on the cassette. Because the magnetic recording and the physical tape wore with use (and rental videos had a lot of wear and tear), sometimes movies which had a sex scene or fanservice would get a little flaky there from people repeatedly rewinding the scene or having it paused there for a long time.

VCRs included a digital clock, which in many people's homes simply blinked "12:00" because no one could be bothered to figure out (or wanted to figure out) how to program it after hooking it up or after a power failure, because the clock wasn't necessary to watch movies - only to program when to record things. This became a common Stock Shtick for someone who was Hopeless with Tech.

Because of the large data storage capacity of VHS tapes, they were also occasionally used as the basis for computer data backup systems and one or two rare consoles. They were also instrumental in the development of the Compact Disc, which used a specially-modified U-matic recorder for master tapes because no one made a hard drive big enough at the time.

The VHS format is more remembered for its shortcomings rather than its merits, often portrayed as having terrible picture quality and easily becoming warped or being eaten up by the VCR. Early advertisements for DVD probably helped spread this perception (continued by ads for VHS to DVD transfer services who would have you believe your VHS tapes are rapidly withering away on the shelves), but it is in most cases unfair, as picture quality often depended on how clean the VCR was and on how well the cassette itself was stored and cared for. Many VHS tapes have survived from the 1980's to modern times relatively unscathed and with fairly good picture quality, as uploads of old television programming to Youtube prove. When first introduced, VHS tapes were given a conservative lifespan of 10-25 years, but depending on how a video cassette is stored and taken care of, it may exceed that estimate by a long shot. VHS tapes still haven't been around long enough to give a definitive life expectancy to. Interestingly, cassettes made in the 1980's were made from sturdier materials, and may ultimately exceed the lifespan of the cheaply-made ones that flooded the market in the late 1990's.

Also, the terms "VHS Player" and "VHS tape" are retronyms which came into use since the advent of DVD, as after the demise of Betamax they were more likely to be referred to in the common vernacular as a VCR, and video cassettes (or just tapes or videos) respectively. So remember that if writing a period piece set in the 1980's or 1990's.

And finally, a bit of trivia:

  • The first title to see release on VHS was the South Korean film The Young Teacher in 1976.
  • The first major motion picture released on VHS in the US was Magnetic Video's release of Hello, Dolly! in 1977.
  • The last major motion picture released on VHS in the US was Eragon in 2007 — a very, very rare pressing, at that. Previously, it was believed a rare Disney Movie Club print of Cars or the more commercially-available A History of Violence were the last. In Japan, Ponyo was the last movie issued on VHS in 2009.
  • The final American VHS release period was Peppa Pig School Bus Trip in 2007.
  • The last VCR manufacturer, Funai of Japan, finally ceased production of VCR's in July 2016, citing a lack of sales and difficulty in finding parts. This marked the end of the 40 year lifespan of the VCR (barring any vinyl-like comeback of course).

Alternative Title(s): VHS