How VHS Tapes Invented On-Demand Everything

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Next time you fire up your favorite streaming service, thank the old, outdated, and bulky technology that is its great-great-great grandfather: the VCR and the VHS tape.