Going (And Coming) Full Circle

A history lesson…or is it?

An interesting news item crossed my desk last week. It seems that the Funai Corporation of Japan has finally decided to stop manufacturing videocassette recorders (VCRs) after several decades, citing their inability to source parts as the reason.

What’s that you say? You didn’t even know anyone was still making VCRs in 2016?

Well, a local sandwich shop still uses one of those thermal paper fax machines to get orders for breakfast and lunch every day, and I’ll bet it’s been a few years since you used a fax machine, although they’re still extremely popular in Japan, according to a 2013 article in The New York Times!

A reporter for the Washington Post was referred to me by The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) for some pithy quotes about the demise of the VCR, which had its debut in the United States 40 years ago this past summer. Yes, the half-inch videocassette format has been around for some time, with the most popular iteration being the VHS format developed by Japan Victor Corporation, better known as JVC.

Sony also had a half-inch videocassette format for home use called Betamax. In many ways, it was a better way to record and watch TV shows and movies. But Sony’s insistence at keeping Betamax a proprietary format (à la Apple with Mac OS and iOS) eventually doomed it.

In contrast, JVC licensed VHS to a long list of companies: Panasonic, Hitachi, Philips, RCA, Zenith, GE, Sharp…you name the CE company and it probably sold a VHS VCR at some point. That had a lot to do with the success of the format, which soon migrated to consumer camcorders. There was even a short-lived digital version (D-VHS) for recording HD programs and playing back movies in HD, starting in the late 1990s. Blu-ray soon killed that off, though.

I explained to the reporter that the VCR was really at the top (or bottom) of a family tree that leads directly to today’s streaming, on-demand video services. And here’s why: The VCR created the concept of time shifting: recording a TV program so you could watch when you wanted to, not when CBS, ABC or NBC said you could.

VCRs also gave us the ability to skip through commercials, pause and rewind to watch a clip over and over again…or the entire show, for that matter. After Hollywood lost the famous Sony vs. Universal Studios Supreme Court decision in early 1984, which ruled that making recordings of TV shows for home viewing was considered “fair use” under copyright statutes, the floodgates opened.

Not long after, studios started making movies available for sale on VHS and Betamax cassettes. Enterprising individuals, noting the $90 and $100 price tags for movies on cassette, opened small video rental clubs. For having your credit card on file, you could rent a movie for $5.00 or $6.00, as long as you can make sure to rewind it (or pay an extra fee), and return it for another movie.

Hollywood studios weren’t happy with this turn of events until smarter heads realized that the additional revenue stream could add millions to the bottom line. And so, companies like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came into existence, happily raking in the cash as stacks of rental cassettes walked out the door every night.

The introduction of the DVD format almost 20 years ago (yes, it has been that long!) posed an immediate threat to the VHS format. (Betamax had long since folded its tent and left town.) Now, you didn’t need to rewind anything, and there was no annoying, blinking “12:00” indicator staring at you the entire time.

Best of all, you could now jump through chapters of a movie by looking at I-frames. Fast forward, pause and reverse were still available and, in theory, an optical disc would long outlast a VHS tape. It didn’t take long before video rental stores started replacing VHS tapes with DVDs, and by 2005, it was almost impossible to find a movie on VHS.

Did you know that Netflix was started because founder Reed Hastings disliked having to pay $3.00 late fees to Blockbuster? Absolutely true. So he would shop around and buy movies in bulk (cases of DVDs at a time) and rent them out via mail for a month at a time. When you returned the old movie, you got a new one.

Let’s go back to 2005. That was the first year that DVD sales began to decline, although rentals held their own for a few more years. Looming on the horizon were two new HD optical disc formats, HD DVD and Blu-ray, and Hollywood was giddy anticipating wheelbarrows of cash coming in.

But there was a fly in the ointment. About seven years earlier, a company called TiVo unveiled something called the digital video recorder, or DVR. This gadget would let you record analog broadcast and cable TV programs to a hard drive, no tape or disc needed. TiVo sold a subscription program guide service, which is where they made most of their money. I had one of the first Philips-made TiVo units (14-hour capacity) and bought a lifetime subscription for $99 back in 1999, using a dialup connection to refresh the program guide.

So now we could record a TV program, skip the commercials, fast-forward, pause and rewind, and simply delete the file when we were done. “Did you TiVo Letterman last night?” soon became watercooler talk. Along the way, we had obviated the need for any kind of recording media, tape or disc, in favor of solid-state storage.

A year after DVD sales started their decline, I bought one of TiVo’s first HD DVRs. It accepted CableCARDs, so it would work with Comcast. And it had dual DVRs (Wow!) so I could record two programs at once. It was big and noisy, but it served me well for nine years.

Along the way, companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Dish Network, Verizon and DirecTV came out with their own DVRs, some of which could record four or more shows at once. Now, you could record movies in high definition and watch them at your leisure on your brand-new big-screen plasma or LCD TV.

And that brings us to the present day. Hollywood Video is long gone, and Blockbuster is bankrupt (its assets bought by Dish Network). The Blu-ray format, having vanquished HD DVD, isn’t the cash cow that Hollywood anticipated because more and more videos and movies are watched via ever-faster streaming connections. DVD players, once selling for $1000, can be found for $19.99. And Blu-ray players with WiFi are widely available for about $50 to $70.

Netflix has now evolved into a streaming media monster, as has Amazon. YouTube, a pioneer in streaming shared videos, now offers a “red” premium tier, free of commercials. HBO and Showtime, along with ABC and CBS, have started subscription streaming services that can be purchased without a cable or satellite subscription. Episodic TV series are being produced for streaming channels and they’re not scrimping on production values.

So we’ve come full circle. My Comcast Xfinity set-top box is a DVR, but it streams channels from a cloud server, not from an internal hard drive. My contacts at Comcast tell me that we’re not far from the day when there won’t be any set-top (or sidecar) receivers at all: Your smart Ultra HDTV with WiFi will do all the heavy lifting. (After all, smart TVs are basically computers with big display screens these days.)

Today, you can go quite happily through life without having to wind a tape or load a disc in order to watch HDTV. And that’s exactly the way things were 40 years ago. Weird, right? Except you now have hundreds of channels to choose from, all of which can be streamed on demand depending on the service you subscribe to.

Time shifting. Commercial skipping. DVDs. Blu-ray. DVRs. Chapter searches. Video streaming. All of these grew directly out of that first VHS VCR that was sold 40 years ago.

Gives an entirely different meaning to the expression “what goes around, comes around,” doesn’t it?

Previous ArticleNext Article
Send this to a friend