It's the End of an Era, But Which?
The day after the 100th anniversary of the first meeting of the society that became SMPTE, The New York Times reported on July 25, 2016, on the front page of its business section, on the end of an era. The headline was “Once $50,000. Now, VCRs collect dust.” If only we knew which era was ending.
The Washington Post headline on July 22 seemed to put it clearly: “The VCR is officially dead. Yes, it was still alive.” The Associated Press, the same day as the Times story, initially seemed to agree: An anonymous spokesperson for “Japanese electronics maker Funai Electric Co.” “confirmed Monday that production will end sometime this month” of VCRs. Then things get a little confusing.
According to the Times, Funai is “the last known company still manufacturing the technology,” and, according to the Post, Funai “has continued to manufacture the machines even as several generations of superior entertainment technology” appeared, but “a lack of demand and difficulty acquiring parts has convinced them to cease production at the end of July.” According to the AP, however, users will still be able to buy “VHS-DVD recorder-players made by other, mostly Chinese, companies” (the Times and the AP agree that Funai had been making its VCRs in China). According to the AP, as far as VHS/DVD combos, even “Funai will be rolling out such products later this month, the spokesman said.” All three agree that the “lack of demand” meant the company had made only 750,000 VHS machines last year.
If Funai is ceasing production of VCRs, it’s the end of an era at least for them. Funai had been making VHS machines since 1983 and CVC (compact video cassette) machines starting in 1980. That’s a long time. Of course, if they’re continuing to make VHS/DVD combos, it’s somewhat less of an ending, even for Funai. If other manufacturers are continuing to make them, the era hasn’t ended for anyone outside the company.
So the era either ends or doesn’t this week. What about the start? For Funai it was 1983 or 1980. According to the Times, “The first VCRs for homes were released in the 1960s….” Hmm.
VCR stands for videocassette recorder. The Post noted that “Video recording technology itself dates to the early 1920s,” and it’s true. A magnetic version was disclosed in a Russian patent application filed by Boris Rtcheouloff in 1922. But the first videotape recorder (VTR) wasn’t sold until 1956. Though it was very large and heavy, expensive (the $50,000 of the Times headline), and difficult to operate and maintain, it immediately inspired the Times television critic Jack Gould to predict home video. “Why not pick up the new full-length motion picture at the corner drugstore,” he asked in a report on the unveiling of Ampex’s videotape recorder in the April 22, 1956 issue, “and then run it through one’s home TV receiver?”
According to James Lardner’s book Fast Forward: Hollywood, the Japanese, and the VCR Wars (Norton 1987), an Ampex home VTR did appear in the 1963 Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog for “a mere” $30,000. “Officially christened the Signature V, this staggering concoction was informally dubbed Grant’s Tomb after Gus Grant, the marketing manager who conceived it.” As an “Ampex engineer explained, ‘It was about the right size.'” It used two-inch-wide videotape that had to be threaded around the head drum. It was a VTR, not a VCR.
Sony might have been the first to market a smaller, lighter, less-expensive home VTR, starting in 1965, the CV-2000 (shown in the ad at left, click to enlarge). The letters stood for “consumer video.” It used half-inch tape and was easier to operate, but it was still a VTR, not a VCR; consumers had to thread tape around a head drum and got only black-&-white pictures.
By the end of the 1960s, videotape reels were enclosed in cartridges to be inserted into machines that could pull out a stiff tape leader and automatically thread it. They saw use professionally. Sony’s 3/4-inch-tape-width U-matic, which was first sold in 1971, might be considered the first VCR intended for home use. It used double-reel cassettes, it recorded and played color video, and the first model (VO-1600) had wood-panel sides, a tuner, and antenna/TV-set connections. But it could record only one hour per cassette, not enough for a movie. The second recorder (VO-1800) had video and audio inputs and outputs so it could be used professionally. Philips followed with a VCR called VCR in 1972. It, too, failed to capture the home market.
Cartrivision hit Sears stores in 1972. It seemed to have everything: a retail sales channel, the capacity to record a full movie, and prerecorded movies for sale or rent. But, according to Lardner, “After announcing plans to produce up to 50,000 Cartrivision units in 1972, the company had to admit in early 1973 that only twenty-five hundred had been sold.” Despite expanding to Macy’s, Montgomery Ward, and other stores, Cartrivision failed to take hold, and the board of directors of Avco, its major funder, “voted to pull the plug, writing off an investment that had grown to forty-eight million dollars.”
Other home video formats followed: V-Cord, VX, Betamax, VHS, etc. Sony’s Betamax, though the first version could record only one hour per cassette, led to the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision authorizing home video recording of television programming. VHS, with a two-hour capacity from the first unit sold in 1976, took over the market and is still used.
By the way, even if Funai’s decision did lead to the end of VHS, that company wouldn’t be the last VCR manufacturer—not even the last Japan-based VCR manufacturer—as long as the C in VCR can stand for either cassette or cartridge. The relatively new For-A LTR-100HS and LTR-120HS machines record bit-rate-reduced video on LTO-5 or LTO-6 archiving tape cartridges with the usual professional VCR controls and display. There’s no indication they’re planning to stop making and selling them.