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Bill Virgin: VCR era recalls special time for movie buffs

A sales clerk shows video casette recorders at a home and electrical appliance store in Osaka, Japan. Japanese electronics maker Funai Electric Co. says it’s yanking the plug on the world's last video cassette recorder. A company spokesman, who requested anonymity citing company practice, confirmed Monday that production will end.
A sales clerk shows video casette recorders at a home and electrical appliance store in Osaka, Japan. Japanese electronics maker Funai Electric Co. says it’s yanking the plug on the world's last video cassette recorder. A company spokesman, who requested anonymity citing company practice, confirmed Monday that production will end. Associated Press file, 1998

Some technologies endure even after they’re made obsolete by something newer, because of nostalgia, a certain coolness factor or an ability to perform the job better than their more modern replacements.

We’re going to take a guess that video-cassette recorders, failing to qualify on any of the three aforementioned counts, will not have many enthusiasts clamoring to keep them.

Recent news reports noted that the world’s last manufacturer of VHS-compatible recorders, a Japanese company, plans to cease production of the units.

The announcement’s surprise factor is nil — unless there is surprise that anyone still made VHS-compatible recorders. For most, the VCR long ago achieved obsolescence status. VHS machines are the stuff of thrift stores and tapes maybe are garage-sale fodder.

The public moved on to the DVD format, with good reason. Discs were less bulky. They delivered better sound and picture quality (a difference even more pronounced with big-screen flat-panel digital TVs, on which most VHS images look awful). They had far greater capacity for content. They were more durable; tape over time warped, stretched, tangled and broke.

And once people got their hands on technology for recording without tape, that was it for VHS. Its fate parallels that of the cassette, which had no future once the market adopted audio discs. While you can find audio purists who insist the long-playing record is superior to CDs, no one is yearning for a revival of cassettes.

All this dumping on VHS players and tapes obscures an important point — just how revolutionary the technology was at one time.

Those who grew up without ever lacking for recordable and playable media like tapes and discs will not get this. Those of us of a certain vintage, however, will remember what movie watching was like before that era. If you wanted to see for yourself why people loved “Citizen Kane” you could wait for one of your three or four local TV stations to run a chopped-up, commercial-riddled version, or hope your local revival house or college happened to schedule it.

With the dawn of VHS, in the comfort of your living room, you could achieve a breadth and depth of movie literacy that even the most devoted film buffs of the pre-video era could not hope to match. In the process the movie industry discovered a new revenue stream to rescue even the doggiest of releases. A new category of retailing was born — video sales and rentals.

It wasn’t just those industries that experienced massive upheaval. In medieval times TV viewers had limited opportunities to sample a limited menu of programming — watch it now, or in summer reruns, or maybe in syndication.

Then viewers used the VCR to invent the concept of timeshifting. They could watch what they wanted when they wanted. Two shows you’re interested in at the same time? Not a problem, if you mastered the soon-to-be-lost art of connecting TV and tape machine; watch one, record the other. The TV industry is still dealing with the ramifications and effects of that change in consumer behavior.

The other striking thing about this technology revolution, beyond how monumental it was, was how short it was. It’s as if the internal-combustion-engine automobile, having nudged the horse back to the stable as prime motive power, lasted just four decades to be succeeded by some even more newfangled technology.

In the case of the VCR, that newfangled thing was the digital disc and now there’s talk the CD and DVD are headed for their own technology sunsets. Downloaded digital files stored on a computer, phone or mobile device are the next new thing, and they in turn may be dispatched to tech oblivion by the concept of cloud storage of music and video files, for which listeners and viewers pay rental and access fees. The public may well buy into that, although it’s a bit disquieting to us fogeyish types who would rather not pay recurring charges for “our” music and movies.

These technology shifts are fascinating to track because they shape our business and personal lives and they’re going on all around us all the time. You youngsters may not have lived through the Age of the VCR, but do not fret — some technology, some way of living, working or traveling that you take for granted today is even now headed for history. How else are you going to have something to be nostalgic about in your advanced years?

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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