Guest Opinion: Requiem for the VCR

Chicago Tribune
July 29
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The VCR, in frail health for decades, has died. The Funai Corp. of Japan, last known maker of videocassette recorders, said it would stop making the machines by the end of July.

Official cause of death: “difficulty acquiring parts.” More likely: difficulty acquiring customers. Who knew someone was still producing VCRs? The last one we saw was in a museum. And all those tapes? In the trash years ago.

Still, we mark the passing of the VCR because it liberated Americans from the tyranny of the network TV schedule. Because it ruled America’s living room in the 1970s and 1980s. Because today’s TV on demand — anywhere, anytime, on any device — traces its roots to the VCR revolution.

In 1956 the Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Co. unveiled the first demonstration of the technology that would evolve into the home VCR, The New York Times reports. Fred Pfost, an Ampex engineer, secretly taped and then played back a speech delivered by a network vice president to a group of executives.

Pfost describes what happened when the execs watched the replay: “There were about 10 seconds of total silence until they suddenly realized just what they were seeing on the 20 video monitors located around the room. Pandemonium broke out with wild clapping and cheering for five full minutes. This was the first time in history that a large group (outside of Ampex) had ever seen a high-quality, instantaneous replay of any event.”

Yes, the arrival of VCRs in American living rooms was exhilarating. Who could forget that RCA model with the pop-up tape bay? What a magnificent beast! Huge and heavy, with a detailed and cryptic instruction manual that did not readily yield its secrets.

Back then, VCR choice revealed much: Proto-hipsters preferred the (allegedly) pricier, higher-quality, shorter-running Beta tape. Everyone else went with the less expensive, longer-running, pedestrian VHS. (Millennials, think Mac vs. PC.)

Whichever the choice, the wondrous machine would whir to life at any hour of day or night (as long as you could figure out how to set the timer). Then, hours or days later, a viewer could gorge on “thirtysomething” or “All in the Family” or “MASH” or “Miami Vice” or “St. Elsewhere” or “Cheers” (which, yes, dates us to the Pleistocene era of TV).

And anybody could be a producer-director. Video cameras captured birthday parties, piano recitals, bar mitzvahs, christenings, proms, graduations, first steps — a major leap in convenience from Super 8 film.

The tapes in their sturdy plastic containers started filling shelves. Collections grew and grew, even if you never watched a minute. Taping appealed to the inner hoarder.

But the VCR had its limits. The plastic shells would crack. The tape itself deteriorated after repeated viewings or just the passage of time. As the tapes grew murky and grainy, they became even more precious.

That realization unleashed an industry that converted tapes to DVDs, catering to desperate parents hoping to enshrine their child’s greatest hits … on something that would last forever.

Nothing does.

Today, the cloud — that is, storage in the internet’s digital vapors — promises video immortality. As long as the power doesn’t fizzle and the servers don’t go down.

Abandoned technologies sometimes are resurrected by a new generation of devotees. That’s why some hipsters now favor vinyl records.

Still, we don’t imagine that the same sunny fate awaits the VCR. The grainy images of all those television shows, lovingly taped and archived, was comforting to a generation of videophiles intent on preserving their favorite episodes of “Star Trek” or “Seinfeld.” But who would trade those bulky and balky tapes for the exhilarating video library in easy reach of a smartphone?

And so we eagerly await a flash forward to the next electronic marvel.