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Useful Notes / VCR

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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 Videocassette Recorder, a now-defunct technology used to play and record video for personal use, allowing people to watch television programs they have recorded, and pre-recorded movies from Home Video Distributors, most prominently in the VHS (Video Home System) format. The VCR peaked as a format in the late 1980s and into the 1990snote , when VHS machines became inexpensive and when VHS movie rental store were a ubiquitous part of Everytown, America. VHS tapes also allowed viewers to record their favorite shows with a timer to watch them later, boosting the convenience for viewers. VHS came out as the winner of a format war with Beta, despite Beta being of higher quality (more on this later). Despite VHS tapes' shortcomings in video and audio quality, the medium's affordability and accessibility made a lasting impact on media history, as it made people able to enjoy films, shows and other pre-recorded content in their own home.

Videotape has been around since the 1950s, and home video was around since the 1960s (Sony's CV-2000 was the first home video tape recorder on the market in 1965), but these were reel-to-reel systems and thus considered too difficult and expensive for anyone but professionals and serious, deep-pocketed hobbyists. A number of companies wanted to emulate the success of the 8-track cartridge and the audio cassette by creating a package that anyone could just pop into a machine.

The first cassette-based systems came out in the early 1970s, but these remained expensive. Sony's U-matic in 1971, Avco's Cartrivision and Philips' VCRnote  in 1972. 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 two hour recording time (twice that of the first Betamax, courtesy of the considerably larger tapes) and lower price. Sony would retaliate with x2 (later named βII) and x3 (βIII), 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 (250 lines vs. 240 lines) 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 90snote .

Rumor has it that Sony's refusal to allow porn films on their format is the main factor for Beta's failure in the 80s (as would be the case two decades later for Blu-ray's victory over HD DVD, though by that point the internet had more or less eradicated the sales of porn on physical media).note  That being said, Beta's inability to fit a football game on one tape and lagging timer technologynote  were also major factors.

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 (an HD VHS format)) 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. TV studios and post-production houses still have old machines that can play these formats for archival footage.

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 from the mid-1980's to the early-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. Blank VHS tapes are an increasingly rare find these days but certain retail stores still carry them, more than likely produced by Maxell. The last remaining stronghold of the VCR was the camcorder, in which hard disks and optical discs have proven too sensitive to rough handling and solid state storage cost far too much at videotape's 25GB+ capacities for some years until ever-dropping SDCard prices and dual-mode still picture/motion video digital cameras finally made camcorders obsolete just in time for smartphones to put the last nail in the coffin.

While the poor quality of VCRs and VHS tapes and their propensity to jam have now become a punchline, the machines and the other impacts they enabled had a major impact on society. If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, only a Millionaire Playboy could afford to show movies at home on a projector or reel-to-reel video play. Fast-forward to 1990, and a low-income family in an poor working-class neighborhood could afford a $99 VCR and rent films for a few bucks at the local video rental store. The video rental stores not only made home viewing of movies possible to a wider range of people; it also enabled a wider range of movies to be made. In the 1980s, relatively affordable video cameras and video editing enabled a generation of new filmmakers to make independent videos. In addition to getting mainstream, big-budget films at the rental store, patrons could get low-budget horror and action films.

While VCRs have disappeared from stores, there are probably millions of them still in people's attics and basement storage areas. Despite the shortcomings of VHS, there are a few good reasons to keep an old VCR around. You can buy old movies at thrift stores or garage sales 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 from the 2010s onward, 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!, a special run of Shrek Retold, a 100 print run of Climax in 2019, a limited edition release of Bumblebee on April Fools Day the same year, a release of Scott The Woz's The Internet and You as part of a charity drive the same year, and special copies of...well, VHS. There also exist several people making VHS tapes of modern movies, and proudly flaunting them on social media and/or selling very limited prints of them for lucky people to get their hands on. As well, you can leave a VCR and a stack of tapes at an isolated cottage or cabin and there's a zero percent risk of them being stolen!

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. These types of players were also commonly found in cars, particularly minivans, in the late 1990s and early 2000s before being supplanted by DVD players; aftermarket units with not only VHS capability but also RCA jacks to hookup things like video games and even an over-the-air TV tuner (now obsolete thanks to the digital TV switchover in 2009) were also available.

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. Movie rental stores became a place for film nerds to hang out. 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 Joke for someone who was Hopeless with Tech.

Because of the large data storage capacity of videotape, 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 decent picture quality, as uploads of old television programming to YouTube prove. Another thing to consider is that on pre-2000's square-shaped CRT televisions, VHS picture quality was much more passable than on a modern HD flatscreen TV; this was also the case for old video game systems. 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.

There were several higher quality versions of VHS (Beta also had a short-lived format in the mid-to-late '80s called Super Beta):

  • S-VHS came about in the '80s, allowing better picture quality through S-Video cables and S-Video-enabled SCART cables (hence the name). Despite this, it never came close to VHS's success in rentals or player sales (though S-VHS players hung on until 2007). It would, however, gain a much bigger following among music producers thanks to the invention of ADAT, an entry-level digital audio recorder that used S-VHS tapes (consequently making digital recording much more accessible and omnipresent in popular music).
  • W-VHS was released in the mid-'90s but it too failed to catch on, and its lack of success led to W-VHS players becoming notoriously hard to find today.
  • D-VHS was a high-definition format introduced in 1998 supported by four major movie studios (Fox, Artisan, Universal, and DreamWorks SKG) and it had far superior picture quality to DVDs at the time (the picture quality of some DVDs was barely better than VHS in the early years of the format). Most films on D-VHS had a D-Theater label on the box, which meant those tapes could only be played on a VHS player with a D-Theater logo; some of those tapes also had DTS enhanced audio (though some D-VHS films with DTS bizarrely did not have the identifying DTS logo on the box). The format lasted until 2004, two years before a suitable replacement (Blu-ray Disc) came out.

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 '80s or The '90s.

And finally, a bit of trivia:

  • The first title on VHS and Betamax to be Copy Protected by Macrovision was the film, The Cotton Club (1984).
  • 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 Cars, which was released in 2007 exclusively to Disney Movie Club members. A History of Violence was the last to be sold commercially in the United States. In Japan, Ponyo was the last movie issued on VHS in 2009.
  • However, in South Korea, the format continued to be used for movies until late 2010, with Inception being the final movie released on VHS over there, thus making Inception the very last movie released on VHS ever, regardless of country. The fact that both the first and last VHS releases were in South Korea makes for a fitting series of Book Ends.
  • The final American VHS release that wasn't part of a marketing promotion was Go, Diego, Go!: Diego Saves Christmas!, released in October of 2006.
  • 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, Betamax