Rumors of VHS’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Oh, planned obsolescence, you are such an insistent mistress.

It seems like the end of the year news hole combined with the imminent digital TV transition (which does not necessarily mean the end of analog TV…) has sparked additional interest in the press ringing the funeral bells for that most ubiquitous yet unloved video medium, the VHS videocassette. The renewed attentiveness was triggered by a recent LA Times article about the last remaining supplier of pre-recorded VHS tapes to retail stores. The discount supplier tells Times reporter Geoff Boucher,

Photo credit: the waving cat / flickr

Photo credit: the waving cat / flickr

“It’s dead, this is it, this is the last Christmas, without a doubt,” said Kugler, 34, a Burbank businessman. “I was the last one buying VHS and the last one selling it, and I’m done. Anything left in warehouse we’ll just give away or throw away.”

Boucher notes that the last major Hollywood release on VHS was 2006’s “The History of Violence.” However, that does not mean it’s the last VHS release, since there are certainly direct-to-video, corporate, promotional and independent releases still being churned out on videocassettes. And that’s just US market. What about VHS in less developed nations especially India and Latin America, where the push to new formats goes slower because there’s that much less disposible income?

Photo credit: moneboh / flickr

Photo credit: moneboh / flickr

I don’t have a beef with Boucher’s article so much as the second-order press and blogosphere reaction that seizes upon the “VHS is dead” meme rather than the more specific point that the production and distribution of pre-recorded VHS movies are ending. My problem is two-fold. First, I can’t help but think the minor panic-inducing tone of the overall reportage is timed and focused in order to help drive DVD and Blu-Ray sales, especially amongst the digital disc holdouts who up to now have been satisfied with their VHS collection.

Second, it’s overly simplistic to say that VHS is dead just because prerecorded tapes will become more scarce in 2009. One of the most disruptive aspects of home videocassette technology is the fact that it’s recordable; with a VHS VCR you don’t have to simply rely on a steady stream of commercially prerecorded content. I’m willing to bet that millions of VHS VCRs are still in service across the US doing just that — recording someone’s favorite movie on TV or timeshifting a favorite TV program.

Sure, millions of people have shifted to using DVD recorders or DVRs for that purpose, or are time-shifting by watching things online. But that population is still a small percentage of the whole, characterized by having the income necessary to afford these more expensive technologies, combined with the knowledge, interest and will to use them. VHS is dead for a certain class of people, but not the whole country.

Nevertheless, it is true, as one TV report said, that “VHS’ days appear numbered. ” But then, that’s been true pretty much since the first year of DVD, when that technology went on to set records for fast large-scale adoption. Even then the writing was on the wall, just as it is with nearly every single consumer electronics technology ever introduced. Do not doubt that from the time when the first VHS recorder rolled off the assembly line that the electronics giants didn’t have dozens of designs for its successor on the drawing board. It just took until 1997 for DVD to strike the right combination of size, convenience, image quality and price.

Obsolescence is not a natural process, but one planned right into the consumer economy. Now, I’m not arguing against innovations and the succession of technologies with better, more attractive qualities and greater utility. I certainly barely watch VHS tapes myself, and mostly rely on my DVR and on DVDs. So VHS is not a vibrant everyday technology in my household. Yet, that does not mean VHS is useless or dead.

Of course this is the sunset for VHS, but I question the rush to scare people into buying new technologies. Certainly, my recommendation to anyone who has VHS tapes that have irreplaceable stuff on them to consider copying them to DVD, whether it’s a home video or an out-of-print movie (you don’t even need your own DVD recorder — most chain drug stores in the US will do it for you). But that’s as much because of the inevitable slow degradation of magnetic media as it is the eventual death of VHS. I’d make the same recommendation if your precious memories are on DVD — though copying a rare commercially recorded disc will prove more difficult due to digital rights management.

Some justification for declaring VHS’ death rests upon the analog TV transition happening in February. And while it is true that your old VHS workhorse will not be able to record the new digital signals directly, it’s not counted out. The first reason why is that if you still have an analog TV and are using a cable converter box or one of the digital converter boxes for over-the-air broadcasts, then your VCR should still be able to record their digital output. Furthermore, even new digital TVs still have analog inputs for VCRs, DVD players, game consoles and the like, and will continue to have them for a long time. So getting a new flat-panel TV doesn’t mean you can’t still watch your VHS tapes.

Let’s remember that vinyl records and cassettes were declared dead in the early 90s when CDs finally became predominant. And yet, here we are in 2009 and we’re reading about the minor resurgence of vinyl, and you can still buy new books on tape. Sure, you’re not going to find the newest rock albums on new cassette, and new vinyl LPs are still made in tiny numbers compared to CDs. Yet that does not qualify a format as “dead.”

It’s arguable that the LP resurgence is driven both by nostalgia and a hardcore minority that has contended that vinyl sounds better and therefore stuck with the format through the CD era. Cassettes also have some nostalgic allure for many, especially when it comes to memories of mix tapes, while having a much tinier fanbase who cling to the format for its sheer fidelity. I think it’s too early to tell if there will be gathering nostalgia for the lowly VHS videotape in the same way. I’m not sure people have the same emotional attachments to recordings of TV shows and movies that they have for music… but that could just be me.

If you’re wanting to rent or buy the newest Hollywood movie releases then you’re going to need a DVD player — but then, just about anyone with that desire in the US already knows that and has made the appropriate decision. If you’ve still got a VHS VCR and are happily using it there’s no need to panic. Now might not be a bad time to pick up a spare VCR if you can afford it, nor is it a bad time to consider making DVD backups of anything that’s really valuable to you.

Photo credit: dipdewdog / flickr

Photo credit: dipdewdog / flickr

But make no mistake, there’s no indication that you won’t be able to buy a new VCR or blank VHS taps for quite some time to come. Unlike Polaroid film or other single-manufacturer technologies, VHS was licensed far and wide. As long as there’s a buck to be made making and selling recorders and tapes, they’ll be out there.

Like cassettes and vinyl records, VHS tapes and VCRs will continue to live alongside the technologies that are supposed to replace them. Going out of favor does not mean obsolete.

P.S. I want to make a note about the supposed imminent demise of analog TV on Feb. 17. Yes, it’s true that all full-power analog broadcasters are slated to go digital-only on that date, but there are exceptions. Low-power TV stations are not required to shut down their analog signals, and have no deadline to do so. Additionally, the FCC is currently considering a rush proposal to allow broadcasters to maintain a so-called analog “nightlight” signal for 30 days after the turnoff, primarily in order to run a message informing viewers that they need to watch the digital signal.

Also, TV viewers along the Canadian border will be able to continue to watch analog TV signals from the Great White North until at least Aug. 31, 2011. Viewers along the Mexican border may be able to watch analog TV all the way until 2022.

Although I won’t say it’s a sure thing, I’m betting it’s at least even money that the FCC may have to provisionally authorize broadcasters in some regions to keep their analog signals going depending on how many local viewers successfully make the jump to digital–and how many complain. Of course, broadcasters would love for this to happen so they can continue to squat on two valuable parcels of spectrum rather than make the full transition.

In any event, analog TV is a lot like VHS. It won’t be completely dead on Feb. 20. However, TV is at a disadvantage compared to VHS. The force of a federal mandate will be yanking to pull analog TV’s plug, while no such direct force it at work on VHS.

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5 Responses to Rumors of VHS’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Geoff Boucher January 6, 2009 at 9:57 am #

    This is a great piece, smart and so well written. I really enjoyed reading it and I’m glad my article (or the bad echoes it set off in the media)helped inspire it…

  2. JimmieD January 12, 2009 at 12:23 pm #

    My combination VHS/DVD recorder reminds me, each time I attempt to use the VHS “side” to record the HDTV over-the-air signal, that “a digital signal cannot be recorded on an analog device”.

  3. Steve Froud November 21, 2009 at 8:48 am #

    I still VHS to record documentaries from my BTVision Box, (that’s vision on demand, down-streamed through my broadband connection). Still well good enough quality to view even on a 40″ plus TV.

    Otherwise I use DVD and DVD DL to record HD quality in mkv format and play back on my Blu-ray player. Blu-ray movies getting cheaper though, so will start buying more pre-recorded ones and rely less on downloading/streaming, (less time consuming) and downloading/streaming has the problem of being only available for 24hrs on your hdd after you’ve purchased a movie.

    Even thinking of purchasing an S-VHS vcr to store large amounts of drama’s and documentries on, and VHS is still by far the most versitile recording format, you don’t have to format or bloody finalize them for one thing!

  4. Mike April 19, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    I hope VHS never dies. Right now it’s fine the way it is because it’s a great movie hobby for those who don’t have the budget to collect the new styles. And I just miss the darn things. You might like this…. we found a box of random VHS in my basement and went through it…


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