Monday, December 12, 2011

TV Guide Celebrates Christmas (1974-1983)

There was a time when it was okay to actually say "Merry Christmas" without fear of offending the world. I grew up in that politically incorrect, culturally ignorant time and enjoyed many wonderful Christmases before "Christmas" became a bad word.

Something that you wouldn't see these days, but which was a staple in the 1970s was TV Guide's yearly tradition of putting a Christmas-themed cover on the issue of the magazine that included December 25th in its listings. I don't know when this tradition started, but it was still going strong while I was growing up. It must have been a nice thing to get the latest issue of TV Guide in the mail and see the annual holiday cover. Along with having the house decorated, the Christmas tree up, getting all the Christmas cards in the mail and everything else that would be happening during the week or so leading up to the big day, the TV Guide would probably be a small but welcome addition.

I wasn't really aware of this little tradition back then. My family didn't generally get TV Guide at that time, and I was much more occupied with making lists for Santa, waiting for school to close for a week and watching shows like "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer", "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to be cognizant of such a small detail as the cover of the latest TV Guide. Now that I've re-discovered TV Guides as an adult I can see those old covers and appreciate what a nice little "present" they were from the magazine to its subscribers/buyers. Instead of featuring stars of the latest and most popular shows, or interesting sounding cover stories to sell the magazine, TV Guide put all that aside for one week in honor of Christmas.

So let's look at some of those Christmas covers. I'm going to concentrate on a ten year span from 1974 to 1983. While the Christmas covers had most likely been a staple of the magazine for many years at that point, this decade is important to me because it roughly frames my childhood--an era that included a lot of great times watching TV. In 1974 I would have been five years old at Christmas, and in 1983 I would have been fourteen. Any younger and I probably wouldn't have very clear memories of what was going on in my life (not to mention what I had been watching on TV). Any older and I would have been of an age where I'd be working, and my interests would have veered away from watching so much TV and toward girls, hanging out with friends and going to places like the movies and the mall with those friends. But between 1974 and 1983 I had many wonderful Christmas seasons, and it's a lot of fun to look through the TV Guides from this period to see what kinds of holiday programming I might have been watching at the time. While this post will focus only on the covers of those magazines, the actual listings and ads within are a treasure trove of memories. Perhaps that will be covered in future posts. In the meantime, here are the covers:

December 21-27, 1974

The 1974 Christmas cover featured an illustration by Ray Ameijide of Santa Claus and one of his reindeer that appears to have been a sculpture of sorts made out of pieces of what appears to be multi-colored felt.

December 20-26, 1975

This cover features a cute illustration (a common theme in these covers) by Andre Francois of Santa under a Christmas tree-shaped umbrella and a colorful snowstorm or rainstorm.

December 25-31, 1976

This one features another Santa illustration--one by Ronald Searle this time, and shows a cartoon Santa flying over the top of a bunch of Christmas trees and ornaments. He seems to be spreading rainbows from his hands.

December 24-30, 1977

1977's Christmas cover seems very appropriate for TV Guide. Charles Saxon's illustration shows Santa sitting forlornly on a snow covered roof next to a chimney with a TV antenna attached to it. The sky around the house is filled with more antennas. I don't know it the antenna is supposed to be keeping Santa from being able to go down the chimney (it seems like there's still plenty of room as the antenna doesn't cover the top of the chimney). Not only is the sea of antennas appropriate for the magazine, it also hearkens back to a different time-- a time before cable TV (satellite TV, FiOS, DSL...) when pretty much everyone was dependent on an antenna of some type to pull in the signals of the stations that were within the antenna's range.

December 23-29, 1978

Here's a funny illustration by Ronald Searle (who also did the 1976 cover). This one shows Santa Claus on a psychedelic motorcycle, racing across the globe with his bag of toys on the back of the bike. Unfortunately I only have one copy of this issue and the address label really detracts from the image.

December 22-28, 1979

Here's a very simple illustration (by Michael Foreman) of Santa rolling a giant snowball up a hill. Simple, but effective. While neither of my two copies has a mailing label I've included both to showcase the image. The one which is in better shape is unfortunately marred by the remnants of a previously removed label.

December 20-26, 1980

After six straight years, this is the first cover we've seen that doesn't feature Santa Claus. Instead we see a group of musicians performing in the snow in an illustration by John Alcorn. Whether this is just a coincidence or TV Guide's first attempt to show sensitivity toward its readers who weren't from a Christian background I'm not sure. While the scene is definitely a wintry one, it doesn't actually contain anything that could really be considered of a Christmas or religious nature. Though I can't say whether this was a conscious effort by TV Guide or not, I can say that we won't see another cover with Santa on it through the rest of our ten year journey...

December19-25, 1981

Ray Ameijide provides another cover image (his first since 1974). This time it's a Christmas tree with presents underneath it. If TV Guide was trying to get away from blatant Christmas (and/or religious) imagery with last year's cover, they returned to a very traditional Christmas scene with this year's. While Christmas trees have taken on a very secular air as Christmas has become more and more commercial over the years, there's certainly still nothing that screams Christmas like a Christmas tree. And it's religious meanings are still there too--even if some people don't realize it nowadays.

December 25-31, 1982

For the second year in a row TV Guide features a Christmas tree on its cover. If you look closely at the bottom though you'll see that this one is HUGE. It towers Godzilla-like over a group of ice skaters in a tiny village that sits under the tree among the presents. This illustration is by Teresa Fasolino. If the tree on last year's cover was prominently featured, this one is even more so.

December 24-30, 1983

In the last year of our look back at TV Guide Christmas covers we seem to have found the end of the line. After two straight years of Christmas trees and who knows how many years of Christmas-themed covers in general, this one features a pretty standard, non-holiday cover. It's a bunch of funny caricatures of the cast of "The Love Boat" by Bruce Stark. The only nod to the holiday season is some garland running along the railing and a big wreath hanging from the bow of The Love Boat.

This concludes our journey back to TV Guide's Christmas covers from 1974 to 1983. My collection of TV Guides doesn't currently contain any newer issues from later Christmases, so I can't say for sure that they discontinued the traditional Christmas covers for good, but I have a feeling that 1982's gigantic Christmas tree may very well have been the final one fully dedicated to the holiday.

Eventually I hope to write more about some of the programming that was on during these years as well as any Christmas-related articles inside the magazines. There's so much more to TV Guides than the covers. But until then...


Thursday, September 1, 2011

"Smokey and the Bandit" (March 23, 1980)

In one week from today I'll be heading down to the Riverside Drive-In in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania for the 2011 Drive-In Super Monster-Rama. Click on the link to read all about it, but the short version is that the Drive-In Super Monster-Rama is a two night show at one of the dwindling number of active drive-ins left. Each night features four classic drive-in horror movies and a whole slew of intermission ads, short subjects and great old trailers for the kinds of movies that would be featured at drive-ins in the 1960s and 70s. This will be my second trip to the big show (this year marks the fifth edition of the Monster-Rama). Some of the eight movies that will be run include: "The Last Man on Earth" (1964), "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" (1971), "Dr. Phibes Rises Again" (1972), and "Castle of Blood" (1964).

So what does all this have to do with "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977)? Well, nothing really. I suppose that "Smokey and the Bandit" could be considered a drive-in-type of film, but it's quite different from the horror titles featured at the show. The thing is that I'm actually catching a ride down to the show with a friend who lives in New Hampshire. I live in Massachusetts and he will pick me up on the way down. This particular friend is a huge "Smokey" fan. In fact, last year he wore a "Smokey" T-shirt on the trip down to Pennsylvania (we were glad not to be pulled over). One other thing that ties "Smokey and the Bandit" to this trip is the simple fact that we're heading south. No, we're not going to be in the Deep South (like the movie), but Pennsylvania is pretty southern compared to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Maybe I'll even get a chance to have some of that contraband Coors beer (like the stuff they were hauling in the movie) over the weekend!

Mar 22-28, 1980 TV Guide with "Sheriff Lobo" on the cover

All this seems like a good enough reason to hop into the TV Guide Time Machine and head back to March 23, 1980, when "Proud as a Peacock" NBC featured the film as its Sunday Night Movie. Even though the movie was released in May of 1977, this March 1980 airing was already a repeat on network TV. Here's the the ad for the movie in the March 22-28, 1980 TV Guide (Eastern New England Edition):

Page A-44

And here's the Close Up description from a few pages later:
Page A-48
TV Guide also used to have a section that gave little reviews/previews of the most prominent movies that would be on that particular week. It was called "This Week's Movies", and here's what it had to say about "Smokey and the Bandit" (written by Judith Crist):

"Hal Needham's 1977 Smokey and the Bandit has, of course, Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed in a wonderfully carefree 1800-mile crash-bang-slammer of a gas-burning car chase, with Sheriff Jackie Gleason in hot pursuit and Jerry Reed's music for a lagniappe."

I'm not terribly familiar with the lore of "Smokey and the Bandit". In fact, I just watched it last week for possibly the first time in order to gear myself up for the upcoming road trip. I seem to recall some details of the film, but am not sure if I saw the whole movie in the past or if I just saw parts of it on TV (possibly from this very airing on NBC?). I guess that there was simply so much to watch on (pre-cable) Boston-area TV back then that I just never really saw "Smokey" enough to really get into it. It certainly is a fun flick, and it reminds me of that time in the mid- to late-70s when CB radios and trucker culture were all the rage. I'm not sure why trucking became so popular at that time. Big rigs had been hauling food and freight all over the country for decades, and they are still doing that to this very day. Perhaps the new big rigs of the 1970s were extra special in some way that really caught the public's eye. Perhaps it was just because if the popularity of CBs and the fact that truckers used them. Actually, come to think of it, I don't really know if truckers made CBs popular or if CBs made truckers popular. Perhaps it was because of movies like "Smokey and the Bandit", "Convoy" (1978), "High-Ballin'" (1978) and TV shows like "B.J. and the Bear". Whatever the reason (and I'll bet it's possible to figure it out with a little online research), trucking was indeed a big thing back then. I remember the popularity of using the lingo too: "10-4", "convoy", "Smokey", "What's your handle?" and "Keep on Truckin'...".

If you recognize this then you were probably around in the 1970s

In fact, as a young lad I even had a copy of the album (on vinyl of course) "Teddy Bear & the Great C.B. Talk and Trucker Songs". How's that for a title? I think one of my siblings bought it for me as a birthday present when I was around ten or so.

Finally, speaking of "Smokey and the Bandit" and time machines, I stumbled onto a pretty cool website while researching this blog. It's called Atlanta Time Machine, and it has some great then-and-now photos of shooting locations of movies like "Smokey and the Bandit" and shows like "The Dukes of Hazzard" (another CB and trucker culture-fueled bit of the 1970s/early 80s). I've always loved then-and-now studies, and have even attempted to do some of my own. Here's the Atlanta Time Machine's page on "Smokey and the Bandit":

This is where I "borrowed" the image of the movie poster at the top of this blog, and you can get to the then and now photos from this page.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

More TV Guide Blurbs (1980)

I recently wrote about a small item in a 1974 issue of TV Guide called "Tomorrow's History". I wasn't sure if it was merely a small blurb used to take up empty space on a page to fill it out, or if it was some kind of official or unofficial "mission statement" for TV Guide. I also had no idea whether it was a one-time item or if it was used occasionally in various issues whenever needed. It looks like I now have some answers to those admittedly unimportant questions.

March 22-28, 1980 TV Guide cover

I just found the same "Tomorrow's History" piece in the March 22-18, 1980 Eastern New England Edition issue (#1408) too. It looks exactly the same as the one that appeared in 1974. Obviously this means that it did indeed appear more than once. If I just happened to randomly find it in two issues six years apart, it would seem safe to figure that it is in others as well.

Here's the March 1980 "Tomorrow's History" blurb:

And here is the full page that it appeared on and where it was apparently needed to take up a little otherwise empty space:
TV Guide Page A-60

This same issue actually provided me with three more of these "blurbs"--all very different in topic and size from each other. I'll show each one up close, and also what it looked at on the page that it appeared. Since it does seem that they are little space holders it's useful to see what they looked like on the page.

This one, titled "Vital Statistics" is a tiny and rather uninteresting bit of trivia about how CBS paid six million dollars for the rights to air the last Super Bowl game. Something that makes it a bit more interesting is the thought that companies are now paying close to what CBS paid to telecast the entire game simply for a 30-second commercial slot during Super Bowl games of today! (Note the ad for Channel 4's Evening Magazine with Barry Nolan in the full page scan)

TV Guide Page A-41

Speaking of the Super Bowl, here's another blurb simply titled "Sports". It seems to be a bit like the "Tomorrow's History" bit--with TV Guide relating its importance in a world full of many (televised) sporting events. (Note the cool WLVI Channel 56 ad for the movie "Judgment at Nuremburg" on this page)

TV Guide Page A-68

Finally, here's a blurb called "Network Addresses", which lists just that. It's funny to look back at a time when people not only communicated with something like a television network by writing an actual letter, and also to recall a time before cable took off when there were basically only three "real" networks (plus PBS of course). I wonder what would happen if you were to send a letter to one of these addresses today? Would it actually make it to the offices of ABC, CBS, NBC or PBS? Would it actually be answered by another letter?

TV Guide Page A-90

As much as I'm interested in TV Guides from the 1970s and 80s now, I never really saw or read them much when they were new. My parents would sometimes subscribe to the magazine and my mother would give them to me after the cover dates had passed. Since they weren't anything all that "special" at the time I just never seemed to get around to reading the articles and stuff like that. I also didn't really check out the listings, since they were already old by the time I got ahold of the issues. I just held onto them until it came time to toss them out. Perhaps someone who actually bought and read TV Guide on a regular basis in the 1970s and 80s would have a familiarity with these little blurbs and remember seeing them in the magazine from time to time. It's possible that they wouldn't. I've noticed that they're placed in a rather unassuming way that allows you to kind of ignore them as you're scanning through the listings. Unlike paid ads geared to get your attention, these little pieces sort of blend in with the page and don't really stand out. Kind of refreshing actually!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Time Traveling in Style (aka Nice Rack!)

I've been interested in picking up one of those old wire display racks for TV Guides that you used to see near the cash registers in stores back in the day. I sort of stumbled on the idea by mistake while searching for vintage TV Guides on eBay. Every once in a while an old display rack will pop up while doing one of these searches, and of course I always think it would look very smart to have some of my "better" issues sitting in one of these racks. Now, just exactly where one of these racks would actually go in my house is a different question all together. It's a question I didn't think I'd need to address any time in the near future though--as the occasional rack that would show up on eBay always seemed to go for a pretty hefty sum (i.e. out of my price range).

For example, here are the last two TV Guide display racks that I saw come up for auction on eBay and their final selling prices:

This one ended back in the middle of July (2011). It had opened at $7.99 and it ended up going for $88.99 (yes, I just typed Eighty-Eight Dollars And Ninety-Nine Cents!). Shipping on this item was $9.99, meaning that the final cost to the buyer was $98.98. That's almost one hundred bucks for a little display rack!

This second rack was sold just recently at the end of July. Bidding on this one opened at $9.99 and closed at $88.88 (eleven cents cheaper than the first one). With the $7.60 shipping cost the total to the buyer was $96.48.

As you can see, these little oddball items aren't the most common things to find, and thus they tend to go for a pretty high price when more than one interested party sees them up for auction. As a seller I always hope to have multiple people interested in my items. But as a buyer I always hope to be the only one looking for whatever it is I'm looking for, of course.

Last week I was visiting with my Mom. When I arrived at her house I saw a small pile of random stuff sitting on her porch. She said it was stuff she was putting out for a relative's yard sale. Wouldn't you know, there was a TV Guide display rack sitting on top of a box--looking like it was set out specifically for me! I told Mom the story about how I was semi-searching for one of these little items and she let me have it. So now I'm the proud owner of this:

My very own TV Guide display rack!
A few mid-1970s TV Guides sitting in the rack
Closeup of the rack with a '75 Fall Preview and a Bicentennial issue on display
As can be seen, this rack was for both Reader's Digest and TV Guide. It is of the same physical style as the second eBay one above, but it has the same label style ("America's Television Magazine" with a B&W TV Guide logo) of the first one. I'm not really sure how old any of these racks actually are, but it would seem like ones with red labels with the black and white TV Guide logos would be of an earlier vintage (1960s?) than the one with a brown, "wood grain" label and the "Check Out With TV Guide" slogan (1970s?).

This blog obviously doesn't have any insightful tidbits from ancient issues of TV Guides, or interesting television show listings from the 1970s, or anything like that. Instead it's just a chance for me to show off my new "toy". While it's rather mundane-looking, I'm pretty excited to actually have one of these racks, and am looking forward to putting some special issues in it. Perhaps it would be a good place to put issues that I find "bloggable" material in--sort of like a "TV Guide IN/OUT box" as it were. It's also a pretty neat little story about how I came to own this piece of retail history by happenstance and coincidence. Now all I need is a nice La-Z-Boy recliner to sit in while grabbing an old TV Guide from my rack to do a little time traveling...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Isaac Asimov and "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" (1974)

The cover of the November 23-29, 1974 issue of TV Guide declares "What A Week!", and lists a variety of upcoming programming for the week of Thanksgiving. Apparently that week was traditionally one filled with a lot of interesting shows, movies and sporting events. Of course it's still a big week for pro and college football, but I don't think it's really all that much of a standout week for general programming anymore as it was then.

While a lot of stuff was listed, one thing really stands out for me: the Smithsonian Special: "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?". I've been a big fan of Bigfoot and pretty much any other cryptozoological, paranormal or supernatural mystery since I was a little kid. I hadn't heard of the "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" show before, but I learned quite a bit about it while preparing this blog. More on that later. First, let's see what TV Guide wrote about the show and the rest of it's "What A Week" coverage...

It's pretty impressive that the Smithsonian Institute would lend its name to the "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" special. At least as impressive is the fact that TV Guide got none other than Isaac Asimov to write a little piece in honor of the occasion. Interestingly enough, this article is more of a look at how man has traditionally invented various "monsters" to deal with his strange world and to explain things that were hard to understand or comprehend. Instead of giving information on mysteries like Bigfoot and The Loch Ness Monster, Mr. Asimov pretty much tells about how the monsters invented by man over the centuries (sea monsters, the Hydra, dragons...) were in fact figments of his imagination or simply fabrications made up to explain things which were very much based in reality (snakes, octopus, squid...). While it's an interesting piece by a great writer, it is a bit of a disappointing thing to read while gearing up to watch "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" that week. The article isn't specifically about the monsters featured in the special (Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Abominable Snowman). It only mentions them at the end. The gist of the article is that all of the so-called monsters from man's history were false, and the monsters featured in the Smithsonian Special are most likely false too. He ends the article with the statement:

"The giant snakes and dragons that once fought with the gods and terrorized mankind have shrunk to a possible sea serpent reported to be cowering at the bottom of Loch Ness. The giants, the ogres, the monstrous one-eyed cannibals that towered over our puny race of mortals have diminished to mysterious creatures that are said, by some, to leave footprints among the snows of the upper reaches of Mount Everest or show their misty, fugitive shapes in the depths of our Northwest forests. Even if these exist (which is doubtful), what a puny remnant they represent of the glorious horde man's mind and imagination have created."

Not only are the monsters in the special probably not real, even if they were real they'd be puny fugitives hiding from us and cowering in dark places rather than being true "monsters". Oh well. Here is Isaac Asimov's "They Don't Make Monsters Like They Used To":

Page 13

Pages 14-15

Here's the listing from the TV Guide for "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" as it appeared on page A-51 of the November 23-29, 1974 TV Guide:

Page A-51

Now, as far as the special itself... I am a big fan of Bigfoot, The Abominable Snowman and The Loch Ness Monster, but I'm pretty sure I've never seen "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?". I would have been five years old when it first aired--probably a year or two before I really got into the subject matter. I've always considered the mid-1970s to be the "Golden Age" of Bigfoot, but have never really been able to pinpoint exactly why the creature suddenly became such a part of the world's interest and a mainstay of pop culture. One review of "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" on indicates that it was this very special that propelled Bigfoot into the mainstream. It's only a review by one viewer, and I can't speak for its authority, but it does seem to make sense. Here's what this reviewer--"a l i e n"--wrote at IMDb:

"After CBS ran the prime time special 'Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?', Bigfoot, overnight, became a pop culture phenomenon. Reports of encounters (even one of an alleged kidnapping committed by the forest giant) increased receiving major media attention. Indeed, 'Monsters...' became the highest-rated television documentary ever broadcast (a record that was still intact as recently as the early 1990's and may possibly even hold to this day)."

All of this made me even more disappointed to think I had never seen this special and might never be able to. But, of course, we're living in the age of the internet--where it seems like pretty much anything you can think of is online somewhere. Turns out that the entire show can be found pretty easily. Here it is (in five parts) on YouTube:

Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

In addition, I also found out that the special was so popular that it was later re-edited for theatrical release and re-named "The Mysterious Monsters" (1976). This is a movie I had seen as a kid on TV. Not only that, I was able to pick it up on DVD in recent years (I actually have about three copies of it from different sources). Not only that, I even have a full-sized movie poster of the film which I picked up from eBay pretty cheaply a couple years back.

My "less-than-official" DVD of "The Mysterious Monsters"
And here's the back of the DVD cover
My original movie poster for the film
The movie version added Peter Graves as the host, replacing Rod Serling's narration from the original special (probably due at least in part to Rod's death in 1975). Serling had also narrated a couple other specials on paranormal phenomena and ancient astronauts that became the basis for the classic TV show "In Search of..."--which premiered in 1976. Apparently Rod was supposed to have been the host of that show, but was replaced by Leonard Nimoy after his passing. "Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?" also would seem to have been an influence on "In Search of...".

Times have changed in the past few decades, but reports of Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, UFOs and other unexplained mysteries still pop up in the mainstream media every once in a while. The general consensus is that Bigfoot, The Abominable Snowman and Nessie don't exist. After all this time no definitive evidence has ever been presented. But, while none of these monsters have ever been proven true, none of them have ever been proven false either. Until someone manages to do that I will always hold a place in my imagination for these shadowy, mysterious creatures--regardless of how puny and insignificant Isaac Asimov may have considered them in 1974...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tomorrow's History... (1974)

I stumbled on something very small, but very interesting, while checking out an old TV Guide recently. This item came from the September 21-27, 1974 issue (#1121). This was the annual Pro Football preview issue.

While the item in question did appear on the "Sports and Specials" page in the local listings section (page A-13), it has nothing to do with sports. For that matter, it's not even a listing for something that appeared on TV that week. It was simply a little "blurb" that was put in the lower right hand corner of the page--apparently as more of a filler to complete the page than anything else. It's a paragraph called "Tomorrow's History", which seems to be similar to what today we'd call a "mission statement". I don't know if that term existed in 1974 or not, but that's what it seems like. It goes beyond the simple fact that TV Guide is a place to find out what is going to be on TV and read some related articles. In fact, this little paragraph has a lot to do with what the TV Guide Time Machine is all about! Read it and keep both the Time Machine and your ideas about TV Guide in mind:

While this item as a whole does indeed seem to relate to the TV Guide Time Machine, one line really stands out: "It is a basic element in modern culture--an element worth analyzing, studying, writing and reading about." I couldn't agree more!

I don't know whether this was actually some sort of official "mission statement" for TV Guide or not (and it does indeed end with the proclamation "This is the reason for TV Guide"). I also don't know whether it was printed in other issues before or after this one. It seems like something that may have been occasionally used as a final touch for pages that weren't quite full for printing (maybe because of differences between regions that made some ages longer or shorter and possibly messing up the pagination?) and pulled out every once in a while to remind viewers/readers that there was more to TV Guide than simply guiding your TV viewing. I haven't seen this little item before, but will now keep an eye out for it in the future...

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Great Time-Shift Machine Experiment (April 1977)

Remember VCRs? That may seems like a dumb question, but there's a whole generation of kids growing up who will never own a VCR (Video Cassette Recorder). It is an example of a technology which was once pretty much as ubiquitous in homes as televisions. Without much fanfare those VCRs simply disappeared from those homes--replaced by a newer technology (DVD) which itself is already in the process of being replaced. I can remember a time when VCRs were a brand-new idea which offered a seemingly magical power to its owners--the ability to record TV programs to watch later and to keep indefinitely. At first these machines were prohibitively expensive. It wasn't until 1985 that the first VCR became a part of my own household. While it did pretty much the same thing that a tape recorder did (albeit with the added feature of images to go along with the sound), it just seemed like such a miraculous machine to me. I had always wished there was a way to hook a machine up to my brain and record my memories or my dreams. Recording a TV program is quite a bit less exciting than the idea of having a hard copy of your memory or your dreams, but it seemed almost as amazing at the time.

VCRs also could also play pre-recorded tapes as well, and that led to thousands of movies (and eventually TV shows too) being sold and rented for a brand-new market which didn't even exist a few years earlier. Suddenly video stores popped up all over the place. Large chains like Blockbuster were competing with smaller local shops and even modest selections in grocery and convenience stores. It all became very familiar and comfortable. ...At least until DVDs came along and shook things up a bit. The DVD offered all the same playback features of videotapes with much better quality (and lots of special features as well). The recording ability of VCRs kept them a part of most households until other options came along. Now it is pretty rare to find anyone with a VCR in their house (or at least a working unit that's still connected to a TV). It's also extremely rare to find a VCR for sale in a major retail store too. About the only way you can get one new these days is if it's part of a DVD/VCR-combination machine. Like so many technologies, VCRs have gone the way of the dinosaur.

We've seen this kind of technological shift happen many times already. The vinyl record album was the undisputed king of home music collections for many, many years. 8-Track players came along and put a dent in records' sales, but never really threatened to replace them. Reel-to-reel machines were another option that didn't really take much business away from records. It wasn't until audio cassettes came along that the record had its first real competitor. Still, records hung on until the first digital competitor--the Compact Disc--came along. CDs were the death knell for cassettes. Vinyl records were also finally supplanted by CDs, though they still manage to keep a small but devoted audience even today--and are still being pressed in small numbers. Digital Audio Tapes were also supposed to be in the mix, replacing either cassettes or even CDs, but that was one of those technologies that got caught in the middle. It never caught on and fizzled out before finding any real audience. The CD was king for quite a long stretch, and is still the main way of buying music--if you want to physically walk into a store and buy something you can hold in your hand. Further advances in digital technology, as well as the rise of the internet, has threatened to make CDs and the stores that sell them obsolete. Now people can download MP3s from iTunes and build a collection of music without having to own a single "album" or having to physically hand over a ten dollar bill to a salesperson.

The story of home-recorded video is also filled with different technological advances which either flourished or died in an attempt to dethrone the VCR. The VCRs used in American homes from the mid-1980s right up until a few years ago played VHS cassettes. But when the first machines came out in the 1970s and early 1980s there was actually another type of video cassette available--Betamax. The VHS/Beta battle waged for quite some time before VHS eventually won the war--making for a lot of obsolete Betamax machines and tapes in peoples' homes. Laserdisc also vied for an audience for pre-recorded movies. While the Laserdisc ultimately never found a wide enough audience and faltered, its digital technology and idea of special features would eventually return as the much more compact DVD (Digital Video Disc). The DVD took a while to catch on. There were simply too many VCRs in peoples' homes and people had large collections of videotapes built up over many years. For quite a while there was a slow progression in video stores whereby a few DVDs would show up on shelves still dominated by VHS tapes. Later the DVDs were being released at the same rate as video tapes as more households bought players for them. Finally the video tapes were completely replaced by DVDs--and sold off in "sidewalk sales" for a dollar or two. When pre-recorded VHS tapes first came out it wasn't uncommon to see newly-released feature films being sold for close to a hundred dollars!

DVDs are still around, despite the fact that movies are now downloadable just like music is. Of course Blu-Ray has also arrived and risen to the point of being the heir-apparent of the DVD. It's not much of a revolution though--Blu-Ray discs use the basically the same technology, look the same as DVDs and most Blu-Ray players made today will even play all those "old" DVDs. The bigger revolution in digital movie viewing occurred a few years back when Blu-Ray first came out and competed with HD-DVD as a platform to replace DVDs. Very much like the bitter Beta vs. VHS battle from a couple generations earlier, both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs and machines were available to the public with no one knowing which one would eventually be the victor--thus leaving a number of obsolete machines and discs in the homes of consumers who made the wrong choice.

Actually, even having a physical object to record TV shows or movies on (such as a DVD) has also become a bit passe. DVRs, TiVo and other technologies now allow people to have more flexibility than ever before when it comes to recording and viewing TV programs. Plus nearly everything that one can watch on TV is also available in some form or other online (some perfectly legal, some a bit shady). It would seem likely that even before Blu-Ray manages to completely bury DVDs it will itself become obsolete.

With all this information of the past thirty or so years of home entertainment in mind, it is interesting to step into the TV Guide Time Machine and travel back to 1977--a time when VCRs were still a magical (and very expensive) idea to most people. The April 9-15, 1977 issue of TV Guide had a fascinating (in retrospect) article in it called "The Great Time-Shift Machine Experiment" by David Lachenbruch. As can be inferred by the title, the idea of being able to record programs, keep them on videotape, and then watch them whenever one felt like it was a very novel and groundbreaking one at the time. Something that seems so commonplace today (and which used a technology that seems old-fashioned and outdated now) was a very exciting prospect at the time. Apparently the Betamax cassettes were the standard at the moment this article was written. Two competing platforms are mentioned in the piece. I can only assume that one of these competitors was the VHS tape (and I can only wonder what the other one was...).

At the time of this article there were approximately 40,000 of these "time-shift machines" in households across America. While this number is miniscule compared to the number of VCRs that would be in use ten years later, I was actually a bit surprised that there were that many of them around in 1977. Mr. Lachenbruch mentions that home video recording had been promised as being around the corner since the late 1950s and the first commercially sold set came out (without much success) in 1972. In 1977 the machines available were still selling for well over thousand dollars. Competition and other factors would start making the price a little more realistic for most Americans in a few years, but at the time video cassette recorders were really only likely to be found in the wealthiest of households.

Another interesting aspect of this article is that it mentions that Universal City Studios and Walt Disney Productions attempted to sue the makers of these early VCRs (and even one poor consumer who bought one) claiming copyright violations. These complaints are somewhat understandable in light of the recording possibilities of this new technology. Obviously a whole new angle opened up for entertainment lawyers around this time. I'm sure that initial lawsuit led to a lot of litigation, complaints and compromise on both sides that lasted for years. It can still be seen today with the problem of online movie sharing, downloading and pirating. I'm also pretty sure that first lawsuit was at least partially responsible for all those boring legal warnings and announcements from the FBI and Interpol that appear onscreen (and which no one reads) when you pop a DVD in to watch a movie to this very day.

Without further delay, here is David Lachenbruch's article "The Great Time-Shift Machine Experiment" from the April 9-15, 1977 issue of TV Guide (pages 4-8):

Cover of April 9-15, 1977 issue

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