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

Page 4

Page 5

Page 6

Page 8

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