Economics

QWERTY's Revenge: The Lonesome Death of the VHS system

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Variety (somewhat comedically) eulogizes the VHS home entertainment system, whose death in the market is now pretty much complete. An excerpt:

Although it had been ailing, the format's death became official in this, the video biz's all-important fourth quarter. Retailers decided to pull the plug, saying there was no longer shelf space.

As a tribute to the late, great VHS, Toys 'R' Us will continue to carry a few titles like "Barney," and some dollar video chains will still handle cassettes for those who cannot deal with the death of the format.

Born Vertical Helical Scan to parent JVC of Japan, the tape had a difficult childhood as it was forced to compete with Sony's Betamax format.

After its youthful Betamax battles, the longer-playing VHS tapes eventually became the format of choice for millions of consumers……

The format flourished until DVDs launched in 1997. After a fruitful career, VHS tapes started to retire from center stage in 2003 when DVDs became more popular for the first time.

Since their retirement, VHS tapes have made occasional appearances in children's entertainment and as a format for collectors seeking titles not released on DVD. VHS continued to make as much as $300 million a year until this year, when studios stopped manufacturing the tapes.

Will there be revanchist fanatics, as with vinyl v. CD, who continue to plump for their beloved old format's unique charm and qualities? I'd like to think no, but almost certainly yes.

A classic Reason feature from 1996 by Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis on some of the myths of "path dependence" that used to haunt the VHS system's (short-lived, as it almost always goes) market dominance.

[Link via USA Today's Pop Candy blog.]

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  1. i work at a video store and we pretty much since january have not been getting new vhs for the new release walls. we still have a lot of vhs cause we’re a mom and pop chain, not like blockbuster which has gone all dvd. a few months ago we got rid of anything on vhs that we have on dvd and sold them in the used bins. so little by little we’ve been downsizing them and eventually there will be no vhs. we still have them now cause of the store’s been around since the 80s and there’s really old tapes the rare film nerd may want to see but that’s not much of our customer base unfortunately for me. it’s mostly middle class family types who just want whatever the new titles are.

  2. Just a side-note, but I recently bought the special edition version of “Videodrome”, and the DVD comes in packaging that looks like an old Beta-max. Far out.

  3. Vinyl appeals to collectors for aesthetic reasons. Cover art, the perception of a “warmer” sound, etc. Audio cassette tapes do not appeal to collectors. I do not foresee VHS collectors, other than in the short-term for titles that have yet to be issued in a digital format. Penn & Teller Get Killed on VHS may appeal to a collector now, but once it is transferred, the tape will be junk.

  4. Empty VHS tapes are still being sold, so anybody who’s missing them can still record their DVDs onto tapes. I still use VHS tapes to record movies or shows I know I’ll miss, and I don’t think Tivo or recordable DVDs will replace those anytime soon.

  5. unlikely that vhs will have the same nostalgia value as vinyl. the better analogy is 8 track tapes.

  6. Believe it or not, my uncle has this old Beta tape of a hilarious dubbed movie that he never got around to transfering to another format. I’m thinking of looking for a place that will burn it to DVD. There must be a video equipment or editing store with an old Beta machine in back that would be willing to do it.

    The movie is really dumb, but it has sentimental value.

  7. Empty VHS tapes are still being sold, so anybody who’s missing them can still record their DVDs onto tapes.

    Not with the Macrovision.

    It’s actually way easier to make a DVD copy of a DVD than it is to make a VHS copy. Funny how the studios and manufacturers wasted all that money on greasing the palms of Congress to ensure that people won’t be able to make copies on obsolete formats. Suckers!

  8. I still buy a lot of blank VHS tapes to record television shows and movies while I’m at work. Eventually I suppose I’ll succumb to a recordable DVD player, since the price is getting reasonable.

  9. Thoreau, would that movie happen to be What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

  10. It’s actually way easier to make a DVD copy of a DVD than it is to make a VHS copy.

    I’ve heard that there are some problems with copying movies on VHS, but I’ve never had that problem. Not with my old trusty Grundig VCR I got back in 1991.

  11. …I don’t think Tivo or recordable DVDs will replace those anytime soon.

    Are you kidding? Get a DVR, man! You will never touch another VHS tape again.

  12. “Thoreau, would that movie happen to be What’s Up, Tiger Lily?”

    I watched that one on VHS a few years ago. God, it is funny.

  13. I still buy VHS tapes, just not new ones. If I’m only going to watch a movie once or twice and can pay $10-$15 for a DVD or $1-$5 for VHS, it’s not a very difficult choice. Dead formats rock that way.

  14. VHS is so much *warmer* than digital. Especially when I use my special $10,000 interconnects which use light beams as insulation against RF interference.

  15. I like my Magnavox combo VHS/DVD player. It was only $64 at Wally-World. As my VHS tapes wear out I am switching to discs. It was cheaper than two separate machines and it is one less remote to deal with. My library still has more tapes than discs, so for the time being it is nice to have access to both formats.

    Beta was better and I will not mourn for VHS.

  16. Beta certainly was the better format. It’s too bad Sony wasn’t bright enough to exploit the advantage.
    The early VHS tapes looked like shit compared to Beta.

  17. If a retro-video-format cult ever forms, it’ll be from the ashes of the Laserdisc, not VHS. Us LD geeks were pretty cult-y back in the day already, it wouldn’t be hard to spin that back up again.

  18. jon, my vhs is all tube.

  19. Jon H–thanks—that’s exactly the sort of spirited thinking I was looking to dredge up!

  20. One nice thing about home entertainment going digital is this. Digital to digital conversion is much easier than analog to digital conversion or analog to analog conversion. We’ll be seeing a lot of format changes in the near future, it’s cheaper and easier to convert your libraries now.

  21. Ugh, I guess I’m humorless and dense. I missed Doherty’s irony. Well done, Jon H.

  22. It’s too bad Sony wasn’t bright enough to exploit the advantage.

    Sony has tried introducing several formats and have failed at every single one of them. Their track record does not bode well for Blu-Ray DVD.

  23. The part about the light beam insulation described a real product, though it seems the company no longer lists it on their website.

    Here’s an old description:
    “The Radiant Light Cable System, newly introduced by Purist Audio Design in 1998, is the only system of its kind in the world. It takes the already superb Dominus cable and adds a special form of radiant-optical fiber. These optical fibers are illuminated by a specially designed light source and radiate light around the conductors. The light changes the properties of the insulation surrounding the conductors, thus minimizing distortion in music reception.”

  24. “The Radiant Light Cable System, newly introduced by Purist Audio Design in 1998, is the only system of its kind in the world. It takes the already superb Dominus cable and adds a special form of radiant-optical fiber. These optical fibers are illuminated by a specially designed light source and radiate light around the conductors. The light changes the properties of the insulation surrounding the conductors, thus minimizing distortion in music reception.”

    There’s a sucker born every minute.

  25. There’s a sucker born every minute

    It reminds me of stereo nerds I knew back in the seventies.

    “This amp has .005% THD”
    “Oh yeah? This amp only has .003% THD.

    Like either of them could tell the difference on a blind listen test.

    Any (detectable to human ears) improvement in sound reproduction in the future will be in the transducers e.g. microphones, pick-ups and speakers. Amplifiers and recording mediums (CDs, MP3s) are for all practical purposes perfected.

  26. DVDs have only a couple of years left.

    I know this for certain because I just bought a DVD player.

  27. As one of those stereo nerds back in the ’70’s I was the proud owner of a Kenwood 4 channel receiver. Most of the 4 channel recordings weren’t that great BUT Santana Abraxis in discreet 4 channel would throw you around. I don’t think it was ever good enough to make chicks take off their clothes, but the sound quality was amazing.

  28. i have penn and teller get killed on tape. love it.

  29. Amplifiers and recording mediums (CDs, MP3s) are for all practical purposes perfected.

    Actually, from what I can tell CDs can be improved, and will be in the next generation. Something like DVD audio will come around. But beyond that I don’t see much improvement. The problem at the moment is that the sample rate for CDs is slightly too low for perfect reproduction; it’s not audible to the casual listener, but I think that even blind tests by experts can tell a difference in high frequencies. But a sample rate of 48 kHz or so will result in sound indistinguisable to the human ear, and that will be easily deliverable on DVD. So yeah, there’s a slight increase in fidelity possible, but beyond that it probably won’t matter.

  30. I think that even blind tests by experts can tell a difference in high frequencies.

    not so far, no. if one runs a signal through a properly functioning 16 bit/44.1kHz a-to-d then back through a properly functioning d-to-a, and don’t lose bits through lousy signal processing, no-one has yet been able to spot the difference blind.

    that will not stop the medium from becoming obsolete because, well, it’s time for the medium to become obsolete.

  31. When I was a kid, we had beta, and VHS was for sucks. Good riddance.

  32. I also had a betamax, which I kept running as long as I could. It served double-duty as an excellent video recorder and the highest-fidelity audio tape recorder I have ever owned. We went through a very brief period of renting VHS tapes before making the switch to DVDs; since then, the home VHS has been almost excluisvely a recording device.

    Current-model DVRs don’t do what I want them to do: I have digital cable and often need to be able to record multiple programs at once from the digital stream. The best DVRs now available can record two programs at once, by virtue of having two separate tuners. With all of the network counter-programming going on, it is more and more often the case that three or more of our favorite shows occupy or overlap the same time-slot. We currently have two VCRs in the house, partly to deal with such “traffic jam” situations, and have, on many occasions been forced to watch a third show “live” while recording two others. If I were to get a DVR, I would like to eliminate that inconvenience. I would also like it to make any recorded program available over our home WiFi/Ethernet, or accept and store any video file we download to it, for playback on the living room TV. I won’t hold my breath, awaiting such a unit.

    For recording purposes, assuming that they never make a DVR that has the features I want, I might just invest in a DVD recorder next time. DVDs are now cheaper and much smaller than the recordable VHS tapes they would replace.

    I have long thought that Video On Demand was the way to go (even if only via DVDs-in-the-mail, along the lines of NetFlix). The OnDemand service we get from Comcast Digital has been impressive, but “free” selections have been meager so far. I wish the blasted industry would hurry up and get all the rights issues resolved so that we consumers can get the thing we want and need: the programs we want, when we want them, without having to invest in or maintain sophisticated recording and storage devices. Technically, it’s all possible (and, in many contexts, being done) now. Only the lawyers and execs stand in the way. Kind of reminds me of the political scene, where the obstacles are lawyers and politicians.

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