The word disruptive gets used a little too casually sometimes, but the video cassette recorder was massively so. The introduction of consumer VCRs in the 1970s freed TV viewers from the strict schedules that movie theaters and broadcast networks had no choice but to set. The concept of “time shifting” originated with the VCR, and in the movie and TV industries, time shifting changed everything.
The consumer VCR market lasted for roughly 25 years before the machines were superseded by digital formats, mainly DVD players and digital video recorders (DVRs). During that quarter-century span, scores of manufacturers cranked out hundreds of models with cumulative unit sales in the hundreds of millions. The market was too fractured and evolved too quickly for any single model to have dominated. Nevertheless, the Panasonic PV-1563 was emblematic, one of the better models from among the best-selling VCRs in 1986, a year in which technological innovations significantly improved VCR recording and playback performance.
When the consumer VCR market began in earnest in the 1970s, viewers could record only the show playing on their screens. So at the beginning, time shifting wasn’t yet the dominant rationale for having a VCR. In those days, viewers were apt to use a VCR to record a show while they were watching it so they could watch it again later. It was an expensive proposition. In 1975 the average VCR cost between US $1,000 and $1,400—at least $4,800 in 2019 dollars. It was far too costly for all but the most affluent and enthusiastic TV viewers to buy, mostly to rewatch shows.
The market was almost immediately bogged down by one of the most notorious format wars in consumer electronics history: Betamax (“Beta”) vs. Video Home System (VHS). Sony created the Beta format and introduced it in 1975; VHS was devised by JVC and introduced in 1976. Many consumers hesitated, wondering which one they should buy, knowing that if they chose wrong they’d soon have a very expensive piece of electronic junk lying around. The two formats ran neck and neck for a few years, but by 1981 VHS machines were outselling Beta and by a big enough margin to be declared the winner.
Yes, Beta was technically superior. It still lost. Get over it.
Oddly, Sony kept manufacturing Betamax tapes until 2016, for a market that by then must have been difficult to detect without a microscope. By 2016, not only had VHS long since vanquished Beta, it had itself been vanquished by DVD, which itself had been eclipsed by home streaming.
Getting back to VCRs: In 1980, only about one in 100 U.S. households had one. But that was the first year of a decade-long run of accelerating sales growth. In 1988, for example, VCR penetration soared to nearly 60 percent. Every year, manufacturers kept driving down the price of VCRs, while adding features that made time shifting easier. People loved time shifting for two reasons: You could record a show and watch it whenever you wanted, of course. Perhaps just as alluringly, with fast-forwarding, you could skip commercials.
Not incidentally, VCRs also sparked a boom in amateur filming. Sony and JVC both introduced VCR-friendly camcorders in 1983, ushering in a new era in home moviemaking. Recording and playback were much easier with videocassettes than with film. With Beta or VHS tapes, there was no waiting for film processing. You just ejected the cassette from your camcorder and popped it into your VCR and it was ready for viewing.
As much as consumers loved VCRs, film and TV producers hated them. Viewers were gleefully skipping commercials, which deeply dismayed advertisers. The motion-picture studios had also become convinced that home taping was eating into movie theater profits and was enabling widespread film piracy—essentially, the theft of their content. In 1982, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), testified before the U.S. Congress in a speech that reached dizzying heights of hyperbolic hyperventilation. Speaking before the House Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice, Valenti thundered: “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”
The simmering feud came to a boil in 1983 when Universal City Studios sued Sony, claiming that home recording was copyright infringement. A Universal win would have certainly hobbled the VCR industry and might have even killed it. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the verdict was reached in early 1984: Home recording was “fair use” and therefore permissible. Universal—and the entire film industry—lost.
The ruling validated both the machine itself and solidified the legality of the sale and rental of prerecorded content, which the motion-picture industry eventually embraced as a very lucrative additional business. Renting VHS tapes of major motion pictures soon became a sizable business. In the United States, Blockbuster LLC was founded in 1985 and quickly dominated the market. Kim’s Video and Music became a mecca for Manhattan cinephiles, a crowd that loved browsing through motion-picture history with films filed alphabetically by director. From 1984 to 1985—in the middle of that 10-year stretch of booming sales—U.S. sales of VCR players increased 50 percent to about 11.5 million units.
In 1985, the price for the typical VCR also dropped roughly 15 percent, to the $200–$400 range (there were a few models that were cheaper, and many that were more expensive). Buyers had their choice of multiple models each from roughly 70 brands, among them Akai, Fisher, GE, Hitachi, JVC, Magnavox (Philips), Marantz, Mitsubishi, NEC, Panasonic, Philco (Philips), Quasar, RCA, Sanyo, Sharp, Sylvania (Philips again), Toshiba, and Zenith. In reality, many of them, including ones sold at various times under the brand names GE, Magnavox, NEC, Philips, RCA, Sanyo, and Toshiba, and were manufactured by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. in Japan. Matsushita was Panasonic’s parent firm; it produced all of the VCRs (and many other consumer electronics goods) that carried the brand names Panasonic and, after 1974, Quasar.
Also in 1985, VCR remote controls became available, and manufacturers introduced freeze-frame and search features. In 1986, a watershed year, 12 million players were sold in the United States. By then, RCA and Panasonic were the two leading VCR brands, with 14 percent and 12 percent of the market, respectively. No one else was even close to being in the double digits.
That was the year that most manufacturers began releasing models that incorporated a new technology standard called HQ, which stood for “high quality.” The addition of HQ justified the first-ever price increases in VCRs.
HQ was an umbrella term for several different technologies. A review of the new HQ VCRs in a contemporary issue of Popular Science described HQ as “a series of four circuits: extended white clip, to increase picture sharpness; luminance noise reduction, to lower overall picture snow; chrominance noise reduction, to remove snow from color; and detail enhancement, to increase picture detail.” White clip and detail enhancement were used only during recording.
HQ video was visibly superior, the review said, while acknowledging it was impossible to figure out which of the four technological constituent elements contributed the most to the improvement.
Every leading manufacturer in 1986 produced multiple models adopting the new HQ features in various combinations. Some models incorporated all four HQ features. RCA and a few other makers were skeptical that chrominance noise reduction had much benefit and omitted it.
Panasonic’s PV-1563 was one of at least 11 models released by Panasonic in 1986. All of them, including the PV-1563, incorporated only two of the four HQ features: white clip and detail enhancement. In addition, the 1563 had other high-end touches, including wireless remote control, on-screen display and programming, and auto rewind. Like other premium VCRs of the time, it had four heads. Standard machines had two heads. Each of the heads was angled to sense or record (depending on whether the machine was in play mode or record mode) the magnetic information in adjacent tracks, or “fields,” on the magnetic tape as it passed by the head. However, VHS machines had multiple speeds, known as SP, LP, and EP. Four-head machines added a second pair of heads that were wider, to specifically accommodate the SP speed, which was the fastest. The benefit was that with four-head models, the slow-motion and freeze-frame features were much clearer and sharper. For the first time, slo-mo and frozen images were mostly free from video artifacts, notably horizontal white bands of interference.
Another major advance that debuted on VCRs in 1986, including the PV-1563, was Multichannel Television Sound, or MTS. Up until the mid-1980s, television was basically a monaural technology. MTS allowed it to go stereo. It did so by adding a second channel to the monaural sound channel, which was then standard. For purposes of moving to stereo, the monaural channel continued to be the sum of the audio from the original left and right signals. The added channel carried the left signal minus the right signal. When the signal from the second channel was added to the monaural signal (left plus right), you got the left stereo channel. When it was subtracted, you got the right stereo channel. The system, developed by Zenith and standardized by the U.S. Electronic Industries Association, was incorporated into the NTSC TV standard starting around 1984.
It is a measure of the technological ferment in the VCR industry in 1986 that the VCR nostalgia website Vintage Electronics characterizes the 1563’s combination of features and performance as merely “slightly ahead of the times in that era.” Of Panasonic’s 11 new models that year, the 1563, which listed at $775, was situated right in the middle of the range in terms of price.
By 1989, 65 percent of U.S. households had a VCR, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. That was the year the VCR market experienced its first-ever decline in sales, though. At the time, the suspected causes included market saturation and the growing popularity of cable TV. There were storage-media formats that competed with VCRs, most notably the LaserDisc, but they were all failures until DVDs came along. Introduced in Japan in 1996, the DVD format gradually gained in popularity worldwide, and DVD players began outselling VCRs around 2001.
The last VCR manufacturer threw in the towel on VCRs in 2016, but the VCR’s influence persists to this day. The digital video recorder, or DVR, performs the same basic functions as the VCR, plus a few more. Meanwhile, the film and video industries have been and are still continuously reorganizing themselves around the principle of time shifting, most recently through the medium of broadband streaming. The VCR is gone, but its legacy of liberation will endure as long as people stare at screens, be they small, medium, or large.