VHS tapes have been relics of the past for quite a while. Even DVDs are beginning to seem outdated as Blu-ray discs and other digital media grow in popularity.
Nonetheless, many undoubtedly remember the squeaky, shiny plastic of home Disney movies or the long VHS rewinding process after (and often before) the movie – and few will forget anytime soon.
Speculations concerning the death of VHS arose when Distribution Video and Audio ceased its production of VHS tapes last October, marking the end of an era in video technology. The company began in 1988 as a video supplier to major rental chains, and by the end of 2008, it reigned as the last VHS distributor in the United States.
Questions arise as to whether the end of VHS’s popularity is truly the final nail in its coffin. Though production in the United States has officially ended, many believe that the VHS format will continue to be a useful media tool for years to come.
“It totally revolutionized the whole concept of home entertainment,” said Jesse Drew, acting director of the technocultural studies department. “When the technology came out, it radically transformed people’s home lives in a way that will be appreciated for a long time to come.“
VHS stands for Video Home System, developed by JVC (Victory Company of Japan), and was first released in the United States in 1976. Early development met fierce competition with Sony’s Betamax format as each struggled to balance picture and audio quality with affordability and ease-of-use.
Moreover, the development and eventual standardization of VHS in the home recording market further strengthened home video recording itself, in conjunction with VCRs and video cameras.
“The ability to capture video is a very complex and technical task,” Drew said. “When they invented television, it wasn’t until the mid-‘60s that they even developed a way of capturing video. It’s not like recorded video has been around that long.“
Kristina Luo, a junior biochemistry major who works at the Hart Media Distribution Lab, said that professors and students continue to check out VHS tapes on a regular basis. According to Luo, some professors continue to record their lectures onto VHS tapes for students, made available through the lab.
“It depends on the class,” Luo said. “Some watch old Shakespeare movies or very old movies that are only available on VHS [tapes] that we have in our collection.“
Luo said out of the roughly 10,300 DVDs and VHS tapes in the lab’s collection, the VHS section makes up the majority. Moreover, the demand for videotapes and DVDs is about even in the lab.
Each media cabinet in most UC Davis classrooms contains VCRs, the primary player for VHS tapes.
But, unlike other older forms of media such as film or vinyl, the vulnerability of VHS tapes is a limiting factor. The life of a videotape is limited by time, repeated use and moving parts, all of which cause picture and sound quality to deteriorate.
“[There’s an] awful amount of material on VHS that’s going to disappear if the machines aren’t around to copy them,” Drew said. “The life of a tape is not forever – the tape starts to fall apart – it can be a real tragedy.“
Many other movie rental stores like Blockbuster Video no longer carry VHS tapes, and competition with legal and illegal downloading as well as online services like iTunes and Netflix further signal the long-established popularity of digital formatting.
Some attribute the everlasting nature of the format to the value of the older tapes. Large collections of VHS and their continued compatibility offer incentives to keep the tapes, at least for a few more years.
“We still find some demand for them,” said John Merchant, owner of 49‘er Video in Davis. “We continue to carry VHS for which we can’t find a DVD, and there are surprisingly still a lot of titles that have never been reissued [on] DVDs. Rather than to discontinue to offer those, we continue to maintain a pretty extensive inventory of them.“
Despite its inevitable extinction, Drew hopes that the VHS format will still be preserved.
“I hope they don’t phase them out for a while, because there is still so much tape on VHS,” Drew said. “It would eliminate your ability to [watch] a lot of stuff that’s not on DVD.“
JUSTIN T. HO can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.