We all knew this day would come, and a bittersweet day it is. After decades on the market which saw the devices go from high-end novelty to the dominant form of home entertainment to outdated relic, the VCR is finally breathing its last. Reports earlier this week stated that the last company manufacturing the ol’ video cassette recorder, Japan-based Funai, will cease production at the end of this month.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King
You probably didn’t know that the VCR was first developed in 1956. These early models used 2-inch wide tape and, owing to their roughly $50,000 price tag, were really only affordable for television networks, who used them to record programming for the first time. (You may have forgotten that for many years, all TV was live because there was no other option.)
It wasn’t until the mid-‘70s that VCRs really started to become a common part of the American home. As the decade turned over into the ‘80s and the Format War raged on, VCRs became ubiquitous. I remember my family’s first VCR, one of those big, gray, top-loading models with the tracking knobs that never really made any difference and those weird, not-quite-coaxial connectors.
By the time VHS finally vanquished the allegedly-superior Betamax, there was a video rental store on seemingly every street corner—the Starsucks of the day. I also remember a neighbor up the road who had two VCRs and would rent and bootleg almost every movie that was available to rent at the little video store in our town. That was seriously the most mind-blowing technological achievement my young mind had seen at the time. Two VCRs! Hooked together! Dude had a massive library, and would gladly loan out bootlegs to everyone on our street, free of charge or late fees. Good times.
VCRs were a boon to the movie industry, as studios could now make money both on the theatrical releases and home video licensing of their flicks. True story: early VHS tapes that went out to video stores often cost over a hundred dollars, meaning that, at roughly three to four bucks a pop for a rental, a video store would have to see a movie rented 25 or more times before turning a profit. Think about the cost of the last VHS tape you saw for sale anywhere and tell me it’s not ridiculous in both directions.
VCRs were so commonplace that in 2008, two full years after Wal-Mart, one of the formats last holdouts, stopped selling VHS tapes, 88 percent of Americans had a VCR in their home. (As of two years ago, that number was down to 58 percent.)
Surely you know that VCRs were rapidly replaced by DVD players at the start of the 21st Century*. DVDs themselves had a relatively short reign—less than a decade, really—before Blu-Ray came along and dethroned them. (Blu-Ray having itself emerged victorious in Format War II, besting HD DVD.) Now, Blu-Ray, too, has largely been supplanted by streaming.
So, as physical video media as a whole slowly rides off into the sunset—over 50% of Americans get their movies via streaming services these days—it seems fitting that the godfather of ‘em all should take its final bow years after it logically should’ve. The king is dead, long live the king.
* And don’t call me Shirley