VIDEO RERUNS

With the Vinyl Record newfound popularity as precedent, perhaps it is inevitable that other analog technologies will come back from oblivion. As it happens, we are seeing stirrings of an emerging VHS renaissance. Welcome back to blurred linear thinking. The picture is already fuzzy enough, so we do not want to even mention the tape format war with Sony Betamax - but we did.

Video Home System was inelegant as a product name but the initials VHS were hyper-licensed into fast feeding one of the most popular electronic devices ever made: the home VCR. That is Video Cassette Recorder if we must spell it out.

Tape recording and playback technology at home ushered in a new era in entertainment content distribution. Big Studio movies on video tape cassettes cost big bucks when first introduced as a home entertainment packaged product. Adopted quickly by the movie retail and rental markets, videotape became a huge money printing format that spread into every neighborhood and living room in the Western Hemisphere.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE FUGLY

The success vectors of VHS rapidly changed the entertainment habits of the people; for good or for bad.

 PROS 
      widespread technology industry adoption 
      studio content approved for movie distribution
      easy to manufacture - easy to understand 
      self-advertising on the packaging 
      easily satisfied market eager for content
 CONS 
      low picture quality, linear content access
      contact friction wears out equipment 
      deteriorates over time can become unusable 
      non-recyclable - bad for the environment 
      large form factor needs storage 

LOW RESOLUTION BEATS NO EXPECTATION

Given high quality film quality to start with, Hollywood movies looked pretty good on tape. VHS video cameras and VCR TV recordings did not; at any time. While the Standard Definition Video format allows for 480 horizontal lines of resolution, VHS delivers a paltry 240.

Because home video was a whole new concept and everyone was already used to crappy television reception, nobody complained about the tape recording quality.

High Definition video was a welcome development to anyone in the video business. I remember unboxing one of the very first commercially available Panasonic 40 inch widescreen HD televisions at our California DVD production facility – circa January 2002. It weighed a ton and cost more than $10,000. Higher resolution revealed detail in the picture that had never been seen on tape before - like putting glasses on for the first time.

Televisions have become very large since the advent of High Definition, which was in turn superseded by 4K-UHD; 8K is already near. VHS has a picture resolution half the 1/16 size of 4K-UHD - a quality level almost intolerable to these entitled eyeballs. Why would you want to look that far back in time?

STICKY TAPE

While not fully understood under the roof of this digital stronghold, a few factors may be at play to replay the VHS era:

 NOSTALGIA 
      familiarity and fondness for retro-technology 
 LOW COST 
      bargain bin, garage sale product 
 OFFLINE 
      no internet or big tech accounts needed 
 SIMPLE 
      no menu options, FF skip studio ads 
 STOCK
      millions of used VHS players and movies sitting around 

Will Videodiscs mount a similar comeback? It seems unlikely given how few were sold, fewer homes have them sitting around, and the gating factor that only higher income folks tended to have them.

Will DVD - Digital Video Disc make a comeback? Best wait until it dies out first: still a lot of money in them thar plastic discs sales.

ROLE BACK THE TAPE

My first video cassette recorder - the RCA VKT-385 SelectaVision, cost $800 including the long wire attached to the remote control. This cord stretched across the coffee table from the TV to the couch. What indignities we will suffer to avoid getting off the couch except for food input/output.

With the ability to “select a vision” and record television shows at any hour of the day, viewers were freed from the forced TV time slot cycle. Given 57 channels with nothing on, I still somehow recorded everything of interest (nature, science, music, history) with recording speed set at SP (Slow Play!).

This made for 6 hours of magnetic television on one tape, but at the worst possible quality. The idea for saving was that someday we would have more free time to go back over everything we missed in TV Land while we were busy.

Over the years, large boxes of VHS tapes accumulated, taking up valuable closet space. Always a recorder, never a player. Having sunk thousands of dollars in bulk tape, it felt like an unreasonable task to just throw them out in the face of a digital product replacement.

To make this Very Horrible Sideshow worthwhile, I doubled down and patiently used multi-tasking time to transfer each tape to DVD.

There are now boxes and stacks of DVD discs in place of the tape boxes, but the space footprint has been reduced by 90%. The net result was more negative time and money to build a crappy personal mountain of content that no one (including me) will ever see through. Since almost all of the content is unmarked – mystery discs of recordings from the past.

This pile of earth history is only suitable for the presumed Voyager 4 trip to deep space – free DVD player and 250 pound HDTV included.

Forgive me if I sound regretful about my fated investment in the past. If everything had stayed the same as it was in 1988, I would be just fine with my collection of fine programming. Who knew there was so much more new content coming down the pipe?

PLAY FOR ME

My children and their children will not care to ever handle a physical media product of any kind, so life on tape is dead to them. I have copied, sold, given away or thrown out every movie or TV recorded tape ever owned - garbage bins full. I kept a few Disney volumes in case miracles happen, but I don’t really believe in miracles.

Though I’ve long ago transferred my VHS home movies to a digital file format, I will uselessly keep the master cassettes in the box for a few more decades. Perhaps by the end of my personal storage locker, Artificial Intelligence improved up-rez quality will make it worthwhile to transfer to the new format of that day. The original tapes will be best to start with: at 240 lines of resolution, every saved generation of video is precious; like the kids on the tape.

This final stash of VHS cassettes will then join billions of others like it in Cassette Heaven. Fast forward a few million years: this generation of humanoids shall come to be known as the Tapesaurus, named after the vast and valued underground pools of dissolved Mylar infused videotape oil.

My video tapes will not endure space, time or the elements in between, but I will have made my contribution to a pile of video history. Watch for my name in the discredits.

Randy Berg

xyz digital inc.

RECOMMENDED READING

Glory Days of the Video Store - Atlas Obscura

The Rise and Fall of the VHS - Southtree

Is the Time Right for a VHS Comeback? - Tech Digest

Video Resolutions: What they are, Different Types, and their Pixel Size

Forget Streaming: Great VHS Comeback Has Begun - National Interest

VHS Back On The Rise? - reddit/r/VHS