The tape has finally run out, so to speak. NPR reports that one of the last VCR manufacturers on the planet will be shutting down within the next month.
After going through several iterations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, home video developers settled on the VHS format as a standard by the end of the decade.
VCRs, the devices that could play VHS tapes, quickly became one of the best-selling consumer electronics items of the 1980s.
In conjunction with this trend, the late 1980s saw a boom in video rental stores, allowing the individual consumer to watch both the latest major studio releases and unique small-budget films at home. This was the first time in the history of motion pictures that such widespread access had been available.
The VCR went down in price by the 1990s, and became ubiquitous. Soon, it seemed everyone had one.
It was not to last for long. By the end of the 1990s, the new DVD format was catching on rapidly.
The advantage was clear: DVD offered better picture and sound, and with less of a chance of degradation that was built in to the plastic-tape-based VHS. Many VCRs were dropped from electronics stores in the early 2000s, with the last major studio title being released on VHS in late 2005.
Here we are now, over a decade later, and the format appears to be finally breathing its true last breath.
It raises two questions: how did it last for so long, and is there any future for the obsolete format?
The answer to the first question is simple: VHS and VCRs died in the United States, but continued in overseas markets. BBC says Funai Electric, the final remaining VCR manufacturer, has been making VCRs for the Chinese market the past few years.
The answer to the second question is not so simple. Whether VHS becomes a museum piece, a fond memory, simply a thought of “good riddance,” or something more depends very much on personal taste. For most viewers, they will be happy to leave their VCRs in the past and enjoy their Blu-Ray collection, or the vast options of streaming Video On Demand services.
Could VHS make a comeback, like vinyl records of music has in recent years? One expert thinks not. Tania Loeffler, an analyst at IHS Technology, spoke with the BBC.
“I don’t see VCR becoming like vinyl, where a lot of people appreciated the warmness of how something sounds on vinyl… The quality on VHS is not something I think anyone would want to go back to.”
But it’s true — some have not thrown out their VCRs, and in fact collect VHS intentionally. Not because they enjoy low-quality video (although some enjoy that aesthetic), but because there are dozens of films as yet unreleased on DVD, Blu-Ray, or digitally. There are entire online communities dedicated to collecting VHS, especially among fans of obscure horror films.
There are actually boutique labels, much like vinyl-only music companies, that produce special products on VHS, designed for the unique VCR viewing experience. Most are rare and unusual films that never found much of an audience even in their original lifespan. Many companies release movies on disc, digital, and VHS formats. The VHS releases are often in limited batches which sell out quickly. Bleeding Skull/Mondo, a sub-division of the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater company, is a well-known purveyor of this style of niche VHS releasing.
Bleeding Skull co-founder Joseph Ziemba spoke with the Telegraph last April.
“We want these movies to be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible… All the Bleeding Skull Video titles were released on VHS in tiny quantities, only released in foreign markets, or never released. But they were originally intended for the VHS format. That’s why we release these movies on VHS.”
Alamo Drafthouse, the parent company, even hosts special monthly VHS-only movie nights at their theaters.
So there might still be a future, however small, for VCRs and their VHS tapes after all.
However, please remember, one last time – don’t forget to rewind after watching.
[Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images]