The Last Days of Videotape
Charles R. Acland / Concordia University


pirate vhs

Remember the three-minute whirl of a rewinding videotape or the dry mechanical clunk of it being ejected? Of course you do. These were part of the domestic soundtrack of film and television recording and viewing for the last couple of decades.

Unlike the lag in the introduction of recordable DVD players to the North American market, VCRs arrived as a medium for recording as well as for playback. True, the minor skills required to program VCRs to record TV broadcasts were fussy enough to dissuade many from regularly using that function. As a result, contra industry expectations in the 1970s, videotape rental eventually upstaged time-shifting as the dominant use, and revenue center, for the home video business. By the mid-1980s, jokes about VCRs flashing “12:00” – the tell-tale sign of a machine not set-up for programmed recording – were as pervasive as those about airline food.

Yet, people did record shows and build, and in some cases obsessively, videotape libraries.1 Neatly arranged on shelves or tossed randomly into cabinets, one would find late-night movie features, sporting events and awards shows, prime-time sit-coms, and miniseries. Collections might include some used VHS films and an archive of family home video. But apart from children’s titles and exercise videos, which became leading genres for the purchase of new video releases, people built these domestic libraries by taking time to consider what to include, what speed to record at, how to label and organize recordings, and what to duplicate and exchange through informal networks. So distant from our current expectation of the limitlessness of data storage space, for a while, videotape was just expensive enough to encourage VCR users to conserve tape: to pause when recording live to avoid wasting precious tape on commercial breaks, to squeeze as much onto a tape as the time-length would permit, and to re-use tape by recording over less valued material. Imperfections resulted from such experiments in home editing, and truncated programs were a familiarly frustrating consequence.2

In pointing to the VCR era of the vernacular moving image library, I’m not suggesting that aspects do not also describe DVDs and digital file-sharing as well. Home DIY recording culture confronts a dizzying array of available uploaded and downloaded material from corporate and more illicit sources. Though retail has driven the DVD market, we still find all manners of the everyday capture, manipulation, display, and circulation of desirable ripped and burned content.

vhs

So, why bother putting videotape and the VCR on our research agenda? After all, are we not so far beyond the death of videotape that we’ve actually entered the twilight years of the DVD?

First, the VCR was of critical historical importance in the way we understand and interact with the materials of moving images. Of course, there were precursors, but never so malleable, so inexpensive, and so available. The VCR was part of a cultural shift toward the cheapening of moving images, and toward a now-dominant sensibility of informality in the way we live with recorded motion. Moreover, this re-orientation of moving image culture and practice was significant for the operations of the entertainment business, and the VCR eventually tipped the revenue centre for film distributors away from theatrical exhibition, thus establishing patterns for ancillary markets that continue to be exploited.

Second, buried in the shallow grave of those vernacular archives of video recordings are an extraordinarily rich, if haphazard and idiosyncratic, assembly of broadcasting oddities. One-time broadcasting events and anomalies, rare local commercials, station identifications, and sign-off notices. Bumpers, news inserts, and weather alerts announce that one is not just watching, for instance, Force of Evil (1948), but a specific late-night broadcast by a particular station of that classic noir. And one cannot help but notice the temporal specificity of the broadcast-journalism-school-approved hair and teeth of local anchors preceding the credits to, say, a recording of The Arsenio Hall Show. While YouTube gives the impression of having gobbled up every last drop of moving image ephemera – which is not true by any stretch of the imagination – television broadcast recordings offer contextual material, blocks of ads, sequences of television segments, and programming line-ups. Contrast this with the hermetic feel of DVD box sets of television seasons, which, despite their supposedly prestige-enhancing extras, have been stripped of the sullying elements of their broadcast incarnation.3

Third, VCRs and VHS cassettes are not really the “dead media” industry pundits would have us believe they are. In 1993, Video Store published a death-bed announcement, along with a tombstone graphic, saying the “demise of VHS is imminent.”4 It was three additional years before there were more DVD households in the world than VCR.5 Into 2006, some American films still appeared on VHS, with A History of Violence (2005) claiming the ignominious last spot. The final VCR unit went to retailers in 2008, though dual DVD-VHS units remain available. All of this is still very recent history, and the cassettes and machines will remain with us for a while longer. People did not simultaneously free themselves of a format, wiping clean their previous technological investments. Instead, there is a longer, slower, transition, often with people waiting out the mechanical life of devices, and in this way producing extended periods of overlap between the old and the new. Take note that even today, the most recent edition of Leonard Maltin’s popular video guide contains more VHS titles than DVD (13,000 vs. 11,000).6

soco

A novel way to move videotape

Even with all the industry talk about the coming expiration of videotape in the early 2000s, and while major rental and retail chains were divesting themselves of VHS, smaller operations continued, and can still be found, carrying tape. Single-outlet stores proved to be reluctant to get rid of an inventory they’d already paid for, despite the lure of more shelf space afforded by the trim DVD, and concerned about alienating existing clientele, especially older and lower-income patrons.7 They chose to sell off gradually their previously-viewed titles, doing so at such cheap prices and sparking one more stage of life for VHS. Though the primary market for VHS has flatlined, secondary markets continue, with eBay and garage sales keeping titles in circulation.

The cultural life of “out-moded” materials, and the transition between formats, is active enough to bear special attention. Of the many examples of unevenness in media transition, consider the case of Swank Motion Pictures, which has been providing US correctional institutions – public and private, federal and state – with filmed entertainment since 1937. They have exclusive licensing from Hollywood majors, as well as numerous independent outfits, to distribute films to prisons and to arrange for the necessary performance rights. While DVD is now their dominant format, their catalogue includes VHS material that was specially edited for an incarcerated audience. Thus, in this instance, specialized material for a specialized audience guarantees an extension of use for the older format.

The full life cycle of any media – including VCRs and cassettes- equally involves its environmental impact, and contributions to e-waste remain in our midst well past the expiry date of exchange and use value. For all the end-of-life programs for electronics offered by the likes of Sony and Toshiba, US consumers recycle only about 18% of e-waste, and, according to the Basel Action Network’s Jim Puckett, 90% of this ends up in China and Nigeria, where unconscionable working conditions for the stripping of those discarded materials has created localized environmental disasters.8

By drawing attention to that dust-covered box and to those under-utilized black plastic rectangles, whose contents may be marked for DVD transfer or junk, I am advocating for scholarship that addresses fading media machines. If we took industry trades publications seriously, videotape died years ago, and we would ignore it in favor of whatever has been deemed the economic golden goose of the moment. Media scholars need to be cautious about industrial cheerleading, lest our field becomes a bastion for studies of earlier adopters of new technology. As it is, too often it seems that communication and media departments exist as the go-to place for sound-bites on interactive this and touch-screen that. The prioritization of the “new” on our research agendas draws us more in synch with the priorities of the consumer electronics business. We become “incubators” for products and markets. A counter-veiling force in scholarship must meet this, one that situates the gleaming promises of ethereal media with a critical orientation toward the materiality of existing cultural life – dominant, emergent, and residual, as Raymond Williams so perfectly insisted.

Further Reading:
On the history of the VCR, the definitive work remains Frederick Wasser, Veni, Vidi, Video: The Hollywood Empire and the VCR, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. Examples of the scholarly potential for re-visiting videotape culture are Lucas Hilderbrand, Inherent Vice : Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, Durham: Duke University Press, 2009; Joshua M. Greenberg, From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008; Will Straw, “Embedded memories” and Kate Egan, “The Celebration of a ‘proper product’: Exploring the residual collectible through the ‘video nasty’,” in Residual Media, ed. Charles R. Acland, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, 3-15 and 200-221; and Barbara Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Notes:
Thanks to Brian Fauteux for research assistance.

Photo Credits:
1. http://www.ieee-jp.org/japancouncil/jchc/adm/vhs.jpg
2. http://media.obsessable.com/media/2008/11/10/zz7beb3583.jpg
3. Author’s picture

Please feel free to comment.

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  1. For an insightful study of this, see Kim Bjarkman, “To have and to hold: The Video collector’s relationship to an ethereal medium,” Television and New Media, vol. 5 no. 3, August 2004: 217-246. []
  2. The Digital Video Recorder is a curious exception to the limitlessness of storage; it requires a prioritization in one’s list, and an additional step to dump more precious recordings to a recordable DVD for longer-term storage. Currently, the DVR is, in the end, a mechanism designed for temporary capture and storage. Even the evident inaccuracy of programming grids assures we have a new era of incomplete recordings and amputated endings. The imperfectly recorded world of the VCR persists. []
  3. Charlotte Brunsdon discussed a similar point in a keynote presentation on DVDs and television criticism at the “Medium to Medium” symposium, Northwestern University (April 2009), referencing a phrase from Derek Kompare that “DVD box sets provide the content without the noise.” Derek Kompare, “Publishing flow: DVD box sets and the reconception of television,” Television and New Media, vol. 7 no. 4, November 2006: 352. []
  4. Thomas K. Arnold, “Many say market demise of VHS is imminent; Few see the format lasting much longer, but cassette could become a niche,” Video Store, December 21-27 (2003): 1, 24. []
  5. “DVD hardware overtakes the VCR,” Screen Digest, November 2007: 333-340. []
  6. Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s 2010 Movie Guide, New York: Signet, 2009. []
  7. Melinda Saccone, “Smaller video specialty retailers slower to abandon VHS,” Video Store, May 9-15 (2004): 25. []
  8. US Environmental Protection Agency, “Statistics on the management of used and end-of-life electronics,” http://www.epa.gov/waste/conserve/materials/ecycling/manage.htm; and Shelagh McNally, “Stemming the tide of e-waste,” Vancouver Sun, May 30 (2009): J7. For an evocative statement on this topic, see Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, “E-Waste: The Elephant in the room,” Flow, 9.3 (2008). []

12 comments

  • I really loved this piece Charles because I am still an avid videotape watcher and buyer (from thrift stores!), yet I have gotten some laughs when admitting it! I will say tha quite recently, I had trouble finding VHS tapes available for recording at several stores when I was trying to transfer media that had been DVR recorded for me to tape when I never did before. I don’t think people realize how many families had/have media “archives” in their homes, material that could be so useful to us as media scholars. My family has over 300 tapes that I have tapped into for research and/or fascination from time to time–some with commercials, some without, some family recordings sharing a tape with a Lakers/Celtics basketball game. On top of that, I amassed around a 200-VHS tape collection of various material, many of which is available not on DVD. There is no denying that these collections take up a ridiculous amount of room vs. their potentially converted DVD counterparts, but there is something to be said about their existence period and their quantity.

    Perhaps more interestingly is this idea of “fading media machines” in our culture and whether they become jokes of the past. I am particularly fascinated with nostalgia for past or outmoded media technologies that create a line between “purists” and “contemporary buyers” (A friend of mine will never abandon his Laser Disc player) of technology. In addition, it is always fascinating to see where older forms of media technology collide with newer ones like in the case of Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind which laments the passing of the VHS (along with issues of art), but sold on DVD and the MS_DOS emulators available via the internet for Windows Vista/XP computers in order to play old PC games. Your article definitely prompts us to take another look at fading media technologies precisely because they’ve been labelled in that way, which I think speaks to our culture’s relationship with technological progress and change.

  • And the teaching potential of videotape is SO amazing. Michael Kackman has a particularly robust collection of video, including the magnificent “Battle of the Network Stars” (circa late ’70s) and episodes of Cagney and Lacey from their original airing (which, of course, includes tremendous opportunities to analyze, er, flow — including makeup commercials playing with some of the feminist/feminine controversies that C&L itself addressed).

    As you point out, the problem will continue to be access and archiving. How long can we insist that all classrooms have VCRs? Or should we simply move all of our archives to DVD?

  • Great Charles, thank you for sharing.

  • Charles, I appreciate how your essay makes a case for scholars to consider fading technologies and disappearing machines. It is, of course, applicable to many moments in media technology over the last sixty years, if not earlier. What happened to the material recorded on older technologies and how much of that media have we recovered, can we recover, will we desire to recover?

    I would add another element for consideration, surely of interest to ethnographers as well. The VHS tape made it possible for succeeding generations to see/hear their grandparents and great grandparents in motion, in family settings, and to hear how the family talked together. This is a far different kind of family history than that conveyed by the photo album. How much of that gets preserved across changes of format, for example, now to DVD?

    Also, VHS cameras were used by many activists documenting moments of resistance to oppression all over the world, and a large slice of recorded history disappears as those tapes are consigned to the trash, or even now as they deteriorate. In my own case, I and many other activists made videotapes in Sandinista Nicaragua, recording daily life and community there. We have archives of deteriorating VHS tape showing this utopian moment in recent history. I fear most of that will be lost to memory.

    Your essay brings to mind how much VHS changed personal life, political activism, and scholarly pursuits.

    Julia Lesage

  • Very interesting conversation! I also like the term “fading technology” since VHS do seem to literally “fade” over time. Many of the old VHS titles in my university’s media library are currently unwatchable and now need to be replaced with DVD (when that’s possible). And on the rare occasions that I teach a film that is only available on VHS, I’ve run into problems with students who try to watch the film on their own and find they can’t because they don’t own a VCR and don’t know anyone who does. We still own a VCR but the straining noises it makes as I pop in old VHS tapes of children’s movies for my daughter tell me its days are numbered.

  • Thank you, Charles, for an excellent survey of the possibilities emerging field of consumer video studies. I’d also like to recommend Ann Gray’s _Video Playtime: The Gendering of a Leisure Technology_ (Routledge, 1992) and Sean Cubitt’s _Timeshift: On Video Culture_ (Routledge, 1991) by way of citing a longer history of investigation into ancillary distribution and its technologies. I’m very intrigued by your allusion to Swank Motion Pictures, since it speaks to trajectories of movie (let’s not say film) distribution and spectatorship practices long overlooked. Barbara Klinger observes that most US viewers saw most of their movies on video after 1988, but I appreciate your attention to video’s mobility: it also look movies to viewers who might not be able to go to the theater.

    Finally, in regard to your question, “so, why bother putting videotape and the VCR on our research agenda? After all, are we not so far beyond the death of videotape that we’ve actually entered the twilight years of the DVD?” I want to extend to that genealogy of “fading technology” to include 16mm and 8mm film, which were ancillary formats (along with television syndication) before VHS. Your article reminds me that our histories of media exhibition must include the discards and detritus of past formats if we are truly to reflect accurately upon contemporary spectatorship and our notions of audio-visual progress– so thanks again!

  • Charles,

    This is an inspired and inspirational piece, which persuasively (and justifiably) calls for a more dedicated analysis of video within media culture. I share your sentiments completely. You raise three important points about the importance of video, each of which, for me, raises historiographical, methodological, and pedagogical issues:

    1. Video and the VCR profoundly changed the way that people interacted with moving images. But how do we “record” a history of recording, when even that practice has changed dramatically since the mid-1980s? In other words, how do we diachronically represent a historical phenomenon which discombobulated our temporal relation with recorded moving images? (And how do we do this without retreading discussions of the “spatialization of time” typical of postmodernity)? Further, in addition to the new control over media content afforded by the VCR, where did the negotiation over the “meaning” of the technology take place? (Greenberg’s book is quite good on this topic). I, like some others, would argue that the video rental store was vital to the conception and reconception of moving images over the last several decades. Even if we take it that the rental store facilitated a limited (if dominant) range of cultural practices, it was a dynamic site of social interaction. But again, how do we write a history of ephemeral business transactions and the incredibly subtle cultural struggles they entailed? How do we begin such a study now, when video rental stores are rapidly disappearing and those that remain look pretty different than they did in 1985 or 1995? How do we teach this to our students, who increasingly do not go to video stores, much less movie theaters?

    2. Video texts provide context in the form of adjacent textual artifacts. Although not talking about exactly the same thing as you do here, Lucas Hilderbrand’s recent book makes a sophisticated argument regarding video aesthetics as indications of historical passage and social exchange. But in this account, the objective qualities of video represent their socio-historical wear and tear but ultimately leave their histories anonymous and synchronized with the time of (re)viewing. I also find it fascinating that, in the purpose you describe, video takes on a wonderful importance to television historiography, but does not function in the same way for cinema, in terms of the paratextual “flow” material that you describe above.

    3. Video did not die a sudden death; in fact it is still in use in various ways all around us. You rightly point out that this should prompt scholars to be more critical of claims of “the new” and “the old.” This really is an important issue, when you consider how we write (or teach) any sort of media history. Presenting video as a transitional medium between theatrical film and VOD neglects the multiple and complex forces that brought video into the world and which are currently rendering it semi-obsolete. Certainly the present moment is as confused and tumultuous as the 1980s, or any other era for that matter, and so it would be wrongheaded to present video as ushering in a new stable social/industrial formation following some earlier “classical” period. Anecdote: when giving a lecture on video technologies, I opened with a photo of a 1982-era VCR. I asked, “who in the room knows how to use this object?” Only one hand went up, that of a non-traditional student who was slightly younger than me. This illuminated what seems a fundamental point, that technology is really only as important as the techniques by which it is used. So perhaps one way of indicating the ongoing, zombie-like lifespan of video is not only to detail the history of the machine, but see the continuation of the “video practices” that it helped engender (and which continue in mutated form today).

    To my mind, the study of video (and more particularly video rental stores) in necessarily, even overwhelmingly, an interdisciplinary endeavor. It intersects with (at least): media industry studies, cultural geography, ethnography, retail studies, and the history of technology, among others. A daunting task!

    Finally, in terms of your further reading, I would point to a few more works. Paul McDonald recently published Video and DVD Industries, which compliments many of the books you mention (http://www.amazon.com/Video-DV.....1844571688). On a very different note, I think Laura Mulvey’s recent Death 24x a Second is an interesting theoretical investigation of spectatorial issues related to video-types technologies (http://www.amazon.com/Death-24.....1861892632). Similarly, Caetlin Benson-Allott has a piece about video spectatorship in Jump Cut, which I believe comes from her award-winning dissertation (http://www.ejumpcut.org/archiv.....index.html).

    …that was more rambling than I expected. Thanks for the great piece!

  • Great post Charles!
    One of my favorite memories is when a friend of mine pulled out her Beta machine in a crappy apartment and we watched the entire broadcast of Live Aid ten years later, complete with the original commercials. I’ve also loved the experience of watching the original commercials in a broadcast of Dallas, where my enjoyment derives not from watching the show, but the ads that accompanied it.
    It seems to me that the really good video stores (and there are a couple of really good ones in Austin) are the ones that don’t sell off or worse, throw out their video tapes. I feel like you’ve raised some really important points about VHS’ usefulness, both inside and outside of the classroom and into taste communities. Is it possible that the VHS is the new vinyl?

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  • A little scary to think we might have to go back to old school tapes, but this is a very intresting perspective!

  • Charles

    A typically thought provoking piece.

    One of my research interests is the presentation of feature films on British television. Personal VHS libraries are, as you say, integral to the study of the latter part of this history. One example is presenters’ introductions to historically significant film seasons on British television from the 1980s and 1990s. ‘Moviedrome’, a now legendary cult film strand which ran on BBC2 from 1988 to 2000, may not be familiar to US readers. It was a major stimulus for much of the current interest in cult film among British academics, fans, and hyphenates of these two groups. The films in this strand were introduced first by Alex Cox and later by Mark Cousins. These introductions would most likely have been recorded on VHS by many viewers. Some have found their way onto YouTube but there will certainly be amateur archivists out there whose VHS collections contain the complete set.

  • Yes we have past the last days of VHS and Beta max tapes, but I am sure some of us still has the tapes under their closets. Better to transfer them to DVD fast before they degrade.

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