© 2021 KSUT Public Radio
KSUT-web-headerv2880R1.png
NPR News and Music Discovery for the Four Corners
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Life

How The VCR Began America's Love Of On-Demand Content

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

And now we mark the passing of the videocassette recorder, or VCR. Sure, you may have thought it was already gone. But last week, the Japanese Funai Corporation, the last factory maker of the VCR, announced it was stopping production. NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi looks back at the rise and fall of the machine that gave us control over what we watched.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: First, let's hit the rewind button.

(SOUNDBITE OF VCR REWINDING)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Back before 1975, if you wanted to watch your favorite movie, say George Romero's "Night Of The Living Dead," well, good luck.

CAETLIN BENSON-ALLOTT: You could wait until it showed up on one of the few television stations.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's Caetlin Benson-Allott, a professor of Media Studies at Georgetown University.

BENSON-ALLOTT: Or you also had the opportunity of waiting for your local revival theater to play "Night Of The Living Dead" again. But you had very little control.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Then, in 1975, Sony released the Betamax videocassette recorder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: If you think network television is a little boring, start your own network. With the Sony Betamax, you can do just that. You can record what you want, when you want, and watch what you want, when you want.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The next year, JVC released a competing and ultimately triumphant video format - VHS.

BENSON-ALLOTT: Almost immediately, entrepreneurs realized that folks were really attached to their favorite movie that they wanted to watch them again and again just the same way they would re-read a favorite novel.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hollywood Studios jumped quickly aboard the home video distribution bandwagon. But in the early 1980s, the technology was still expensive.

BENSON-ALLOTT: Initially, VCRs were over $1,000 and cassettes were over $100.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It wasn't until video rental stores started popping up that prices plunged and sales took off.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nobody has the movie I want.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey, if it's on video, Blockbuster probably has it. I mean, we have over 10,000 videos.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Blockbuster video. Wow. What a difference.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In 1980, there were fewer than 2 million VCRs in American homes. And by the end of the decade, there were over 62 million. That led to an explosion in direct-to-video content, titles that would never have made it to the big screen or network TV.

BENSON-ALLOTT: Opening up a huge market for horror movies and porn and kids videos were the genres that benefited the most from VCRs.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And entirely new genres were created. Aaron Pratt, a co-founder of Yale's VHS Archives, says the adoption of the VCR by the middle class led to a content revolution.

AARON PRATT: And so you start seeing how-to videos, video dating services and most notably, the glorious workout video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JANE FONDA: Ready and head right, and back, to the left, and down. Reverse it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: For almost two decades, the VHS VCR ruled home entertainment, until the DVD arrived in 1997 with a slimmer box and a much better picture. Within five years, DVD sales and rentals had begun to eclipse VHS. And the last major studio VHS release was David Cronenberg's "A History Of Violence" in 2005.

There are still enough video files and used VCRs floating around in thrift stores to keep the format alive for now. But even if the VCR does disappear along with the DVDs that replace them all in favor of streaming, Caetlin Benson-Allott says it was the VCR that started our love affair with on-demand content. So whether you're watching a YouTube clip on your phone or binge-watching the latest season of "Game Of Thrones..."

BENSON-ALLOTT: That sense of access and entitlement - that's really a gift of the VCR.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And that gift of choice, for better or worse, is here to stay. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR")

THE BUGGLES: (Singing) Video killed the radio star. Video killed the radio star. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.