Rest in Peace, VCR

An elegy for the machine that let people travel through time—but only by a little

Ian Waldie / Getty

The video store, as it is nostalgically remembered, looks like a record shop, or a hookah parlor. Staffed by scruffy burners or neo-hippies who “really know their stuff,” splayed with shelves at all angles, plastered in posters, encrusted with knick-knacks.

Some such stores might have existed, but the earliest video stores were nothing like them. They were modernist celebrations of minimalism and order. Light grey walls and dark grey carpets, austere racks displaying evenly-spaced, singular copies of video boxes. They were quiet and circumspect. Some were tacked on to television equipment repair facilities; others freely stood behind nondescript façades. Indulgences to style were limited: a neon accent, or an OCR-inspired logotype. Before video was culture, it was technology.

What kind of technology? One that cut wormholes through space-time. Called “time shifting,” the videocassette and the VCR made it possible to record a program broadcast at a particular time and to watch it later. Or, to rent or buy a videocassette copy of a film and to watch it from the comfort of home after it had left the theater. It did this for two decades, from 1975 to 1995, and then the DVD continued its legacy, in part, for a decade more.

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.

Meanwhile, the internet has distorted time in far more dimensions than the supposedly time-shifting VCR ever could have imagined. In 1981, the VCR-shifted television viewer was protected by the cost and complexity of rapid communication. “Spoilers” of last night’s Hill Street Blues might still be possible at the office coffee machine the next morning, but not late last night after returning home from a work dinner. Time zones offered greater buffer between east- and west-coasters thanks to the expense of long-distance telephony, and the long-lead and precious real estate of the print newspaper made the next-day “wrap-ups” that are common today impossible. Nothing like the real-time barrage of Facebook or Twitter existed. Time was already less fragmented, and the VCR’s purchase on it was relatively limited. Today, “time shifting” sounds like a profoundly aspirational characterization for 1977 or 1982—and even for 1997 or 2002.

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Likewise, the time horizon for film viewing was different in the VCR’s era than it is today. Once Hollywood got over the perceived threat of VCRs and realized that they offered an opportunity for a huge, new revenue stream in home video, the lifecycle of film viewing became predictable and routine. Studios released movies to theaters first. About half a year later, an initial video release would be conducted. These first VHS tapes were expensive—between $80 and $100 or so. The high price encouraged institutional sales (e.g., to video stores), and pushed individuals to rentals. Only later would affordable tapes become available for retail purchase.

This process worked like clockwork. See the movie in theaters. If you liked it, or if you missed it, wait a half-year or so for the video release. By the late 1980s, video stores anticipated the demand and filled their walls with dozens of copies of the month’s new releases, which were by definition also the top box-office hits two seasons prior. Eventually, new releases became older ones, relegated to the store’s center, where at least one copy of an old favorite was almost guaranteed to be available. Later still, television broadcast rights sales would allow long-play recording on a blank VHS tape for posterity—or at least for storage in a drawer or on a shelf.

The predictability of this ritual makes today’s home-video viewing look like total chaos. Most video stores have shuttered, and many home viewers watch movies on computers or via set-top boxes anyway. Streaming has become the norm. But unlike home-video release, streaming access to a particular title becomes available according to highly individualized rights deals struck between studios and all the various streaming services. There’s no longer any way to predict when a recent release might be available for on-demand cable viewing or streaming. And older releases are no more likely to be available on Netflix or Amazon than new ones; the back catalog has exploded into shrapnel as much as anything on the internet.

Eventually, the sheer volume of home videos gave rise to listless ambles through the video store. The inability to choose made the VCR impotent. Time might have been under the viewer’s greater control, but it was hard to make use of that time—there were too many options. Even so, at least that experience was limited to the video store. Life in the streaming era is much worse. With a handful of services all offering bewildering catalogs of new, old, and original content, watching television has become an every-evening existential crisis.

The VCR disrupted very little. It rent nothing asunder. Instead, it created a small set of stable activities built around two-hour cassette recordings.

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Of course, there are infinitely more similar, shared cultural practices that the internet has underwritten, even if it has also pushed those of video cassette recorder use aside. But even so, it turns out that the public is nostalgic for the very particular kind of shared experience that VCR’s once represented.

Consider the urgency with which news outlets raced to publish news of the VCR’s demise last week. The stories covered the same ground, offering an overview of the VCR’s 60-year history, recounting its salad days in the mid-1970s, celebrating its glory in the 1980s and 1990s, and accounting for its fall as the DVD and then streaming services replaced it. There is joy and relief in having something other than the tragedy of death or the confusion of elections rise above the fray, capturing everyone’s attention all at once. Shared experience is fleeting, and we long for it more than ever. This is why the dress, the llama, the Hillary tweet, and other internet detritus have become culturally central. Memes are water coolers blown to bits.

The longing for synchrony is even more palpable when considered in the context of 1980s communication technology. Mobile phones didn’t exist. News came on paper, once a day at most. There were a handful of major television networks. People spent far more time in the hazy murk of their uncertain status in relation to anyone else’s.

What a convenient accident that Netflix, the heir-apparent to the VCR, released its original series Stranger Things just before Funai’s notice of the device’s demise. The show is a conspiracy fiction about the disappearance of 12-year-old Will Byers, seemingly a result of some insidious, paranormal experiment taking place at the nearby, fictional Hawkins National Laboratory. It’s also a nostalgia-fest for 1983, the year in which the show is set—and in which Funai began manufacturing VCRs. Some of the usual: BMX bikes, Dungeons & Dragons, The Clash. But at a deeper level, the show is all about a desperate attempt to find small-scale, local synchrony.

Mike Wheeler, one of the preteen protagonists, calls his nearby friend Lucas on a walkie-talkie to coordinate their search for Byers. Mike’s older sister Nancy is chastised for coming home late without calling. Byers struggles to escape from the monster-infested, parallel universe in which he appears to be trapped by sending messages through electrical equipment. Myths from a time when things seemed like they could be made right via small adjustments rather than radical disruptions.

This is the cultural cradle of the VCR: a wormhole from one place to another, but one very nearby in space and time. Against all odds for the rapidly deregulating, free-wheeling 1980s, it was a modest technological intervention. The same you and me, just a little while later. Small-scale, local synchrony. This is what people miss about the VCR. A humble, ugly machine whose blocky tapes offered communion with the nearby past and the nearby future.