Sunday, August 14, 2005


The video cassette recorder or VCR, as we know it, has been around for about thirty years now. I think it is safe to say that it revolutionised the way people watch television. In 1965 an individual who wished to watch a television show had to do so whenever the networks or local stations aired it. In 1985 that same individual could simply record the programme and watch it at a later time.The VCR also brought motion pictures to the homes of common people. No longer would the individual have to wait for his or her favourite movies to be shown on television or re-released to theatres.

The video cassette recorder or VCR was the result of several developments over the years, the first of which was the invention of video tape and the VTR or "video tape recorder." In the early days of broadcasting, the need arose among the television networks to be able to delay broadcsts to the different time zones across the United States. After all, a television programme airing at 8:00 at night on the East Coast would air at 5:00 in the afternoon if broadcast live to the West Coast. Film took time to be developed, so that many programmes aired live on the East Coast would not be seen on the West Coast until days later. Film also tended to be costly. There was then a need for a way in which the networks could record a programme on the East Coast so that it could be viewed on the West Coast later that night. For that reason in 1951 Ampex began work that would result in the world's first video tape recorder. In March 1956 Ampex would market the VRX-1000 (later renamed the Mark IV). At a whopping $50,000, only large corporations, educational insitutions, and governments could afford them. In the United States, CBS (Columbia Broadcast System) would become the first network to use video tape extensively.

Here it should be pointed out that in the Fifties and Sixties, video tape did not come in cassettes. Instead, just like audio tape at the time, all video tape was reel to reel. And just as audio tape was eventually marketed to the average person, so too would video tape. By the mid-Sixties companies would introduce VTRs for home use. In 1964 Sony came out with the CV-2000, a video tape recorder for use in the home. Sony introduced it to the United States in 1965. The CV-2000 did not prove to be a roaring success, with less than a thousand of the machines sold in the United States. In 1966 Ampex released the VR-6275, another video tape recorder for home use. The VR-6265 was revolutionary in that it actually allowed the individual to record one TV show while watching another, just as today's VCRs do. At around $1500, however, the VR-6265 was too costly for anyone but the rich and video tape enthusiasts willing to pay its price. Like Sony's CV-2000, the VR-6265 would not bring video tape to the masses. Despite the few private individuals to actually own VTRS, the first pre-recorded movies would come out on video tape in 1967, well before the advent of the VCR!

It must be pointed out that not every attempt to bring video to the home involved magnetic tape. Both CBS and RCA introduced systems that utilised holography instead. In 1967 CBS introduced Electronic Video Recording or EVR. 20th Century Fox even agreed to sell films in the EVR format. Unforutnately, for CBS, EVR proved too costly to mass produce. RCA called its competing system "HoloTape" and later "SelectaVision or SV," a term the company later used for their magnetic tape. RCA's HoloTape is historic for one simple reason--it was the device meant for home use to utilise laser technology--years before CD and DVD players! Unfortunately, RCA found itself in dire economic straits in the early Seventies. Further development of HoloTape or SelectaVision proved to be too costly for them to continue. They discontinued research into the system in 1972.

It is with the early Seventies that we see the advent of the VCR. The first VCR is generally considered to have been produced by Philips. Philips developed a system they called "Video Compact Cassette" or "Video Cassette Recorder (that's right, the Dutch electronics giant coined the term)." The machines were equipped with primitive timers, using rotary dials, and could record up to an hour. It was about the same time that Sony introduced U-Matic, its own video tape cassette format. Although U-Matic would eventually fall out of favour for home use, it would continue to be used in professional and industrial settings for literally years. In 1972 Avco introduced its Cartrivision system. Cartivision allowed for two hours worth or recording. What is more, it was the first VCR for which pre-recorded tapes were manufactured, AVCO having struck a deal with Columbia Pictures. Despite this, Cartrivision was a failure. Introduced in 1972, Avco abandoned the project in 1973.

Given the relative lack of success with which Philips' VCR, Sony's U-Matic, and Avco's Cartrivision systems met in the early Seventies, it would seem that the average person was not ready for home video. All of this would change in 1975 when Sony introduced its new system, one would which would become one of two major industry standards for the next several years. Sony introduced the Betamax to the United States in 1976, touting it as a means of recording one's favourite programmes. Both Disney and Universal sued Sony, claiming that recording on the device constituted copyright infringement. Fortunately, the American Supreme Court would rule that taping programmes in one's own home was protected by the "fair use" excepition to American copyright laws. Betamax could record up to 4 1/2 hours and quickly became a favourite with video enthusiasts. Unfortunately for Sony, it would soon have a rival on the market.

In 1976, another Japanese company, JVC came out with the VHS (Video Home System) format, the standard format for all videocassettes today. VHS had an advantage over Betamax in that it could record longer periods of time. While many claimed Betamx had a better picture, VHS soon became the more popular format. By 1980 70% of all VCRs sold used the VHS format. Eventually, video rental stores would drop Betamax all together, providing only VHS tapes for rent. Sony continued to manufacture Betamax VCRs for the United States until 1998. They continued manufacturing them in Japan until 2002, finally abandoning the format altogther.

While both Betamax and VHS formats were marketed as a means of recording one's favourite programmes, both created a market for pre-recorded movies. In the United States they also created a whole new type of retail store--the video rental store. Perhaps because of the costs of pre-recoreded movies in the late Seventies and early Eighties (believe it or not, they could cost as much as $50), video rental stores sprung up across the U. S. For a few dollars an individual could rent his or her favourite movies, as well as a machine to play them on. Suprisingly, video rental stores continued to exist even after the price of pre-recorded movies dropped (Video Land here in Huntsville was open for about twenty years before closing down). Chains of video rental stores even sprang up, including Blockbuster.

VCRs have been around in one form or another since 1970. As is often the case, however, it seems that they might soon become obsolete. DVDs of pre-recorded movies often offer more than their VHS counterparts--one not only gets the movie (often in widescreen format), but many extras as well ("Making of..." documentaries, audio commentaries, et. al.). With the advent of the DVD recorder, it has become possible for the average person to record his or her own DVDs, getting a superior picture and sound quality than one would have on VHS. There has also been the development of such DVR (Digital Video Recorder) services as TiVo and ReplayTV. DVRs record a broadcast on a hard drive for replay later. Like the DVD recorder, one gets a better picture than one would with VHS. It would seem that the VCR's obsolescence could then well be inevitable. Already many video rental stores (including the Blockbuster chain) have reduced the number of VHS tapes they carry or have even dropped them altogether. Some retailers, such as Best Buy, have ceased to carry VHS tapes altogether (although both WalMart and Target continue to do so, contrary to popular belief). It would seem, then, that soon VHS may go the way of the dinosaurs. Vinyl records replaced records made of shellac. CDs replaced vinyl records. I rather suspect that DVD recorders and DVRs could replace VCRs before long. Regardless, VCRs will have their place in history, having changed the way people watch television forever.

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