Later this month, one of the great technologies of my generation will officially be gone when Japanese electronic company Funai discontinues production of the video cassette recorder, commonly known as the VCR.
The VCR completely changed the way we viewed entertainment at home. Until it became common in American households in the 1980s, catching your favorite shows was appointment viewing. And it actually took two devices to replace it — the DVR to record television shows, but the DVD player for watching pre-recorded video.
Actually, it's remarkable that anyone was still making the VCR. It seems as though DVD and their high-definition cousin the Blu-Ray disc have been the dominant home media platform for a while now, officially overtaking sales of VHS tapes in 2001, according to a report from the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Incidentally, digital streaming revenue is expected to overtake that of DVD sales this year —subscription streaming generated $5 billion in 2015 while disc sales dropped almost 11 percent to $6.1 billion, according to a January report from the Digital Entertainment Group.
Still, Funai sold about 750,000 units worldwide in 2015 under brand names like Sanyo, according to an article from Mental Floss. And a report from PC World indicates it wasn't that necessarily viewers' preference of watching movies and TV shows on digital platforms, rather the company was having difficulty sourcing parts to make the VCRs (although I suspect there is some causation between the two).
I remember when my parents first got a VCR, a gift from my mom's brother, Joey, around 1984. The large silver box from Zenith (now a trade name that's barely used owned by LG Electronics) was an instant hit with the Carter household. My parents both did shift work, so the ability to record and watch their favorite shows when it was more convenient was a total game-changer.
I don't recall when my grandmother received a VCR — likely around the same time — but I do remember that she had HBO on cable, which had a remarkable amount of kids programming. And my grandmother seemingly recorded all of it for my cousin and I, like my favorite series at the time, "Fraggle Rock" featuring Muppets from Jim Henson's creature shop (although not the Muppets most people know) and the occasional animated movie like "Winnie the Pooh." She also recorded movies for the grown-ups. You couldn't go to my grandmother's house to visit and not leave with something freshly recorded and labeled on a Kodak video cassette with the bright yellow sleeve. It didn't take long for her to establish quite the collection, which she kept meticulously filed early on with a numbering system and corresponding notebook that explained what was on each tape and which drawer it was in.
When my parents and I moved to Harford County in 1985, we discovered what was to 5-year-old me the Holy Trinity of shops in a strip mall just down the street from our new house. The first was an ice cream shop, where I developed my snobbery of vanilla bean ice cream as a child, and the second was Box Hill Pizzeria, home to what is arguably the best crab cake I've ever eaten. The third was a video store — obviously long gone, the space actually became the dining room when Box Hill expanded its restaurant — where you could rent movies and, more importantly to me, cartoons, for just a dollar a day.
This was a locally owned shop, long before Blockbuster pervaded the VHS renting landscape, so the selection was usually limited to just one cassette of each movie the store had in stock, so it wasn't unusual to find the "good stuff" picked over. How quaint that seems now when nearly any movie you want can be streamed or ordered on demand with just the push of a few buttons on the remote. And you don't even need to rewind when you're done!
Oddly enough, my 5- and 3-year-old daughters know what VCR and VHS tape are. My mother still has a handful of movies on VHS from my childhood, which the girls get to watch on a TV/VCR combo she set up in one of the extra bedrooms in the house. I suspect they'll be one of few from their generation to have experienced this technology.
But if you have a VCR and VHS tapes sitting in a corner of your basement or attic collecting dust, I wouldn't get rid of them just yet. There are some people who believe VHS tapes will be collector's items and could fetch big money, much like vinyl records. And if that's the case, they'll need something to play them on, so keep the VCR around, too.
Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.