About a year ago, a Japanese electronics company, FUNAI, decided to cease production of video cassette recorders. On the surface, that announcement doesn’t seem earth-shattering, as many companies no longer manufacture out-of-date technology.
I’m sure there once were plenty of companies manufacturing door knockers or manual typewriters. Today, there isn’t a huge demand for men’s Fedoras. Have you tried finding a landline phone that you can hang on your kitchen wall in a retail store lately?
The distinction between those obsolete items and FUNAI abandoning the VCR is that those items are still being manufactured. FUNAI, which sold VCR’s throughout North America under the brand name of SANYO, was the last known manufacturer of VCRs.
At the height of the VCR revolution, FUNAI was producing 15 million units a year, but due to a “declining market,” they halted production. Although there might still be millions of them gathering dust in basements, the VCR will soon be extinct. They aren’t making any more of them.
Many technological advances of the last 30 years have made improvements in existing products, but few, like the VCR, have changed our behavior. For example, the CD was an improvement over the use and sound of vinyl, but it didn’t make music better. Abbey Road is still a great album regardless of how you listen to it.
The VCR provided consumers, for the first time, the opportunity to watch movies from home at their leisure. Back then, getting something “on demand” meant you went to McDonald’s. “Mom and Pop” video rental stores stocked movies you could watch and then return (“be kind, rewind”), paving the way for giants like Hollywood Video or Blockbuster to come along and dominate the marketplace while collecting “late” fees.
You could spend an hour walking around perusing the new releases and making cursory glances down the comedy or drama aisles. Many times, you were just stalling until you saw the clerk going through the “returned” tapes, hoping someone would return Big or Coming to America, instead settling again for Ghostbusters.
Offering more than just movies for your television, the VCR allowed you to watch videos you recorded with a camcorder that had sound. For the first time, you could now hear everyone warbling “Happy Birthday” to little Johnny in addition to seeing Aunt Rita’s beehive hairdo. This changed everything.
Home movies were no longer restricted to three minutes of silent, 8 mm film. The chore of setting up the projector, finding a screen (or an empty wall), threading the film through tiny sprockets and shutting off the lights was gone. Just tune your TV to channel 3, drop in the tape and hit play.
Yes, the camcorder started a video revolution, putting a virtual movie studio into everyone’s hands. Was there anything easier than popping that VHS tape into the camcorder and hitting “record?” But without the VCR, how were you going to watch them?
Parents instinctively recorded hours and hours of their children’s activities and family vacations. Like most of you, I probably have hundreds of hours of stuff I recorded on video tape just because I could. One of the most popular TV programs in history was driven by people sending in video clips of them getting hit in the groin with a Wiffle ball.
Ah, but those days have come and gone. DVDs, like their cousin the CD, eventually jettisoned VHS tapes from the shelves because they were smaller and produced better-quality picture. People were still using their camcorders for personal videos, but ultimately stopped using their VCRs altogether. I still have one, but it’s not hooked up to anything.
Today, you can record excellent quality video on your phone, post it on social media and keep it on “the cloud.” The days of stockpiling bulky VHS tapes are long gone.
But there was something triumphant about finding that movie you were looking for on a Saturday night. You’d rush home, get the kids to bed, pop that cassette into your VCR and wait for the comforting whir of the gears. As your 25-inch TV jumped to life, you settled down with popcorn to watch Jim Carrey in The Mask for the first time.
RIP, old chum.