But last week, news broke that the last remaining global manufacturer of VHS-format VCRs would cease production of the devices at the end of this month. Funai Electric, which marketed their products in North America under the name Sanyo, cited difficulty acquiring parts as a rationale. After reaching peak sales of 15 million in the VHS VCR’s heyday, Funai reportedly sold 750,000 last year. Sony, creator of the competing Betamax-format VCR, stopped making players in 2002 and ceased to manufacture new cassettes for that machine this spring.
There’s no doubt about it: The VCR is dead. And now that it’s gone, the machine’s true purpose can reveal itself.
To some extent, the VCR did shift personal time—a few hours, over a few days or months. But in so doing, the device also created new, shared time between people: It increased the circle of viewers for broadcast programs, constructed the culture of home-video browsing and viewing, and made the long-term collection of bought and recorded videos possible.
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Today, in the era of on-demand streaming media and the high-capacity digital video recorder (DVR), it’s easy to forget how little time the VCR allowed its users to shift. A standard T-120 VHS cassette records about two hours of material in “standard play” (SP) mode. To increase capacity, VCRs allowed recordings in “long play” (LP) and extended play (EP, also called “super long play” or SLP). Long play doubled capacity to four hours, and EP to six. This was accomplished by slowing down the player head, resulting in a substantial reduction in both video and audio quality.
Sure, you could always buy more videocassettes, but that requires more money (a blank tape cost about $25 in the early 1980s, which is equivalent to roughly $65 today), more space to store them, and an available human to switch out tapes when needed. Despite the VCR’s legendary, Hollywood-terrorizing ability to steal entertainment for later, the device did so in small, relatively expensive, decidedly laborious blocks of time.
The resulting shifts were modest and largely social. Recording a program or two when out on a date or at work allowed television viewers to stay abreast of current programming, of which there was also far less than today, even for cable subscribers. It allowed television viewers to keep in sync with their kin, both to facilitate water cooler chatter about the latest episode of Dallas or M*A*S*H, and to remain in-sync for the following week’s live broadcast. The VCR was a concession to shared time, not a portal out of it.
Compare that experience with TV viewing today. “Appointment television” still exists, of course, and there’s a lot more of it. There are also many more ways to watch, both now and later. Live viewing is still possible, and capacious DVRs can fill with weeks or months of programming; streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are available, as are direct subscriptions from networks like HBO. You can watch TV on a television, or on a tablet, or on a computer, or on a smartphone. You can watch it at home, on the bus, in the Starbucks line, or in the Target toilet stall.