Caetlin Benson-Allott explores the legacy of VHS and VCR.

The VCR Changed Everything—and Now It Is Truly Dead

The VCR Changed Everything—and Now It Is Truly Dead

The citizen’s guide to the future.
July 22 2016 11:24 AM
FROM SLATE, NEW AMERICA, AND ASU

RIP to the VCR

A scholar of video technology reflects on the death of an analog medium.

vhs vcr.
Analog Netflix.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by moodboard/Thinkstock and Felipe Sanchez/Getty Images.

This week, the Japanese company Funai Electric announced that it would cease production of VCRs. Since it was reportedly the last company to make the increasingly obsolete players, the news effectively rang the death knell of a technology that had survived long past its own moment. To better understand the enduring legacy of VHS, I called Caetlin Benson-Allott, an associate professor in the English department at Georgetown, where she teaches courses on film and media studies.

Benson-Allott, with whom I went to grad school, is the author of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, in which she explores the ways cinema reflected on and responded to home video technology. She spoke about the strange persistence of VHS technology, discussed its role in the rise of digital culture, and reflected on what she’ll miss most about it.

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Jacob Brogan: As a scholar of video technology, what was your reaction to the news that the VCR is finally dead?

Caetlin Benson-Allott: It surprised me to find out that manufacturers were still producing VCRs, because JVC—the company that invented VHS and gave us the term VCR—actually stopped producing them in 2008. The VCR itself was outmoded by the DVD player in 2001. That’s the year that people started watching more DVDs than VHS cassettes. So, while it was refreshing to see that VCRs had made it this far into the 21st century, it was interesting that it was eight years after the very inventor of the term had given up on the technology.

The VCR was two or three media generations out of date. Why do you think it lasted this long?

There are ways in which VHS is superior to DVD and digital formats for a lot of people. First of all, VHS has a longer shelf life than DVD. The average shelf life of a DVD is about 25 years given average use, and if it’s a DVD-R, it can be as short as five or 10 years, depending on the quality of manufacture. VHS, if stored right, is estimated to last 50 years. Whereas if you think about, say, floppy disks, those are already entirely unusable. So video tape is really stable.

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Second, while the U.S. has gone over to digital television broadcasts, a lot of countries haven’t. VHS, as an analog technology, is still used and still needed in those markets. Third and finally, because it is a mechanical device, there is the capacity to repair it yourself, assuming you can get or manufacture parts.

Do you think that its shelf life means that VHS is going to stick around for a while after this formal end to manufacturing?

I think it means that it should, but “should” and “will” aren’t the same thing. As a university faculty member I’ve watched multiple institutions just flat out destroy or give away their VHS collections in favor of DVD. And now they’re considering getting rid of DVD in favor of subscription services.

What do we lose when institutions discard physical media—especially an obsolete physical media like VHS?

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There are two distinct areas where we lose out: First of all, we lose titles that never make the jump from one format to another. An example of that is the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which was released on VHS up until 1997 and which has never been released on DVD or authorized for any streaming service. It’s an incredibly important film, an iconic movie of the sexual revolution. So we’re losing film history and television history every time we switch formats.

The other thing is that some kind of important movies were shot on VHS or have an intrinsic relationship to the medium. I can’t imagine seeing Todd Haynes’ Superstar without the warble and the static of VHS. The underground distribution of that movie on VHS is so important to how people experienced it and understood the evolution of Haynes’ work or of new queer cinema more generally.

Did the physical bulkiness of VHS inform our relationship to it?

Betamax was actually designed by Sony to approximate the size of a paperback book. They thought that you would have a set of cassettes on your shelf that you’d use to record programs and watch them at a more convenient time. The original vision was that you’d have a home library of film and television, much as you have a home library of beloved books.

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Personally, I’m a huge fan of made-on-video and direct-to-video movies. Seeing them directly on VHS—and in the case of the ones that were commercially distributed, seeing their packaging on VHS—helps us understand the appeal, and why there continues to be such an active subculture around collecting and appreciating these movies.

You argue in Shattered Screens that VHS transformed the process of making movies. Is that a legacy that will linger?

I think it has lingered! We don’t necessarily appreciate how much our use of DVD or streaming or electronic sell-through is based on videotape—Betamax and VHS. The idea of coming home and saying, “I’m in the mood for House of Cards,” or “I want to watch all of Martin Scorsese’s movies in order,” wouldn’t be possible without VHS. The expectation that our media is there when we want it—what Chuck Tryon calls on-demand culture—was born with the VCR.

Does that mean that VCR, maybe video tape more generally, trained us for the agency that we have in our contemporary media culture?

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Absolutely! VHS and videotape gave us an expectation of access that—as Lucas Hilderbrand points out in his book Inherent Vice—is foundational to the way that we approach media today. If you try to think back and imagine what television and film were like before VHS, you had to wait. To see a film that wasn’t just released, you had to make a trek to your local repertory theater on the one night they decided to play it. And if you didn’t live near a repertory theater—as most Americans didn’t—you were out of luck.

So is VCR a technology that paved the way toward its own annihilation?

VHS and Betamax were defined by their format war. The search for constant improvement—along with that business principle of planned obsolescence—was always part of video from its very inception. I don’t think it would be going too far to say that the VCR carved its own tombstone.

In that sense, it was a way station between the analog moment we’ve largely left behind and the digital one that we’re in now.

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I think that’s why you see people fetishizing it now. In horror especially, there’s a subculture of folks who collect VHS-era horror movies on VHS or distribute them themselves. Unlike vinyl, where you arguably do have an improvement of sonic fidelity, VHS is lower resolution than DVD, and the sound mix isn’t even comparable—it’s far muddier, far simpler. It’s sort of ironic that these guys love horror on VHS, because VHS was not very good at doing contrast ratios, doing screens that have really dark lights but also deep shadows. So here, as opposed to on vinyl, it’s not really that you can argue that there’s a technically better user experience with the analog format. Instead, we really have to chalk it up to nostalgia, and to a kind of historical interest in what this technology meant to a certain set of artists and consumers at a certain period in time.

What will you miss most about VHS?

What I miss most—and I have to say I already miss this—about VHS are the video stores. I miss walking into the cornucopia that was my local Lincoln Video of Lincoln, Massachusetts, and finding out about some guy named Scorsese when I was way too young to be watching his movies. And then working back from him to other things that he liked. I miss having a relationship with a video clerk and the esoteric taste, the evolution of taste, that I got from knowing that guy or that gal.

We have that in a sense with the you-might-also-like function on Netflix, but that’s an algorithm replacing a human relationship, which is never the same thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.