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How VHS Tapes Invented On-Demand Everything

Entertainment | February 17, 2019

August 30, 1983 -- models pose with VHS releases from Embassy Home Video Entertainment, touting a promotion via the UK's Sun newspaper. (Photo by Russell McPhedran/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

In the late 1970s, a revolution in home entertainment occurred, contained in a black plastic box: the VHS tape. Before VHS, viewers had almost no way of watching what they wanted, when they wanted. Today we call it "on demand" and it seems a fundamental right of entertainment, but that was hardly the case back when videocassette recorders (VCRs) were new and rare technology. The VCR -- usually a VHS model, though the Betamax format tried to compete -- allowed viewers to tape shows broadcast on TV (over the airwaves, and later on cable networks), and video stores allowed customers to rent movies for a few bucks a night. Before long, no TV stand was complete without a VCR and stacks of VHS tapes in bulky plastic cases or battered cardboard sleeves. Was the picture quality great? No. Was it a pain to rewind the tapes? Sure it was. But the alternative to watching your favorite movie when you wanted to was -- not watching it at all.

VCRs and Beta or VHS tapes weren't only about movies -- no more waking up at 6 AM to see the local yoga show on PBS! With a VHS tape of a workout, those who needed exercise could watch Jane Fonda or Denise Austin when it was convenient for them.

Netflix and other streaming services have offered vast technological improvements. But their essential premise, and promise to viewers, was established 40 years ago: What you want to watch, then you want to watch it. Before, viewers suffered under the tyranny of network programming -- which served up what they wanted you to watch, when they wanted you to watch it.

Next time you fire up your favorite streaming service, thank the old, outdated, and bulky technology that is its great-great-great grandfather: the VCR and the VHS tape.

VHS Stood For 'Vertical Helical Scan,' At First

JVC/VHS. Source: (fontsinuse.com)

The Victor Company of Japan (JVC) created this new-fangled data storage system in 1976 called Vertical Helical Scan.

Vertical Helical Scan was abbreviated and referred to as VHS. It is probably safe to say that VHS is a little more recognizable but not for this original name. Later the same year it was created this new system was still called VHS but now stood for Video Home System. Movies were recorded on a .5-inch magnetic tape that was wound between two spools. To play back, the tape slowly passed over the playback and recording heads of a video cassette recorder (VCR). This type of technology is what started it all!


The Great Question: VHS Or Beta?

Betamax C7. Source: (pinterest.com)

Betamax had been introduced about a year before VHS, in 1975. The two camps were in an intense competition for the consumer’s business. The systems were relatively comparable, but Betamax machines were a little more complicated to operate and a little more expensive. The first Betamax tapes could only hold 60 minutes of content, which wasn’t long enough to record an entire movie, but boasted slightly better picture quality. VHS was cheaper, easier to operate, and had a longer recording time. The two formats battled it out over the course of the '80s, striving for sharper pictures and ever longer capacity. Ultimately, VHS provided the product consumers preferred, and won the format war.

Another defining factor may or may not have been that adult entertainment wasn’t available for the Betamax system. 

Betamax or VHS; everyone had their favorite. The fact remains though that neither brand was exempt from the dreaded occasional mangle tape getting stuck inside the VCR. That was a bummer that could wreck the entire evening. That just went with the territory. It was a risk worth taking to see a good flick.

The VCR Replaced The Home Movie Projector, Which Was Never Widespread

JVC Video Cassette Recorder. Source: (nationalmediamuseumblog.wordpress.com)

The first VCRs were bulky and not cheap. The trade off though, was that we could now bring Hollywood right into the living room… on demand! You have to know how huge this was… to watch a movie on demand. It was like nothing else we had ever known. The next closest thing was watching those old home videos on the movie projector in the basement clubroom.

Demand For Videos Created A New Marketplace: The Video Store

Video rental shop. Source: (gazettelive.co.uk)

Because of the expense, not everyone could afford a VCR, so it was a real treat to find a friend who had one. Eventually, the price came down and they were more accessible and affordable, thank goodness. Of course, what good is the VCR without the cassettes to watch? For that reason, video rental shops began popping up on every corner… literally every corner. This was getting better and better… we now had libraries for movies. Going to the video shop to pick out a movie was as big a thrill as actually watching it when you got home. It was like a magical playground and the possibilities were mind boggling. Walking into the video shop was almost overstimulating with row after row of movie offerings. Romantic, scary, funny… you name it, they had it but only if you got there first. Video shops only had so many of each movie in stock so there were no guarantees.

Most video shops also had adult entertainment, but those cassettes were typically in a room by themselves. It got more insane by the minute! These videos might actually be what drove the industry for a while.


The VCR Let Us Take Control Of Our TVs

British JVC advertisement. Source: (audiokarma.org)

The VHS was responsible for starting a worldwide entertainment revolution! The entire free world was in culture shock with the introduction of the VHS. Most families got three or four channels on the television set. If a person was lucky, at least one of them came in clear. Typically, the clear channel was the news and nothing entertaining. The VHS was a dream come true!

Record It Now, Watch It Later

VHS cassette rewind reminder. Source: (kenbraddy.com)

The VHS was also able to record our favorite shows… AMAZING! The VHS not only played rented movies, now television shows could be recorded! The Young & The Restless, Hawaii Five-0, professional wrestling, holiday specials… the list was endless. Until the time of the home VCR, if you missed a show, you missed a show. Without a VCR, if you missed the holiday special, you had to wait an entire year to see it again.  This new and exciting system allowed you to watch a movie as many times as you wanted!

Watch Whenever You Want -- Even In The Middle Of The Night

NBC television test pattern. Source: (pinterest.com)

Let’s also not forget that at the stroke of midnight, all the channels signed off the air and a test pattern was displayed until 5 or 6 am. The concept of watching what you wanted, when you wanted was new and exciting. Of course, once it was watched it had to be returned. This is when the tagline, “Be Kind, Rewind” was posted everywhere. Just know that not everyone was kind.


Would VHS Tapes Kill Movie Theaters?

Nearly empty movie theater, ‘70s. Source: (flashback.com)

Not everyone was excited about the VHS phenomenon.

While consumers loved the new home entertainment concept, not everyone embraced it. Movie theaters and film makers were hurting over time. It was now possible to save the cost of a movie ticket and wait for it to come out on video. Then friends, family and anyone else could all watch the movie for the same price. It was an entertainment savings bonanza! Film makers began to hold back making their movies available on video because they were losing money. They wanted movie goers to come back to the theater for the re-releases on movies that has scored big at the box office.

Tags: Inventions | Technology

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.