Friday, September 4, 2015

A (Somewhat Personal) History of VHS


The VHS format is now obsolete two times over, but its influence on the entertainment industry is undeniable. It brought home video into the mainstream for the first time and changed the way we think about viewing movies more than any other home video format.

VHS stands for Video Home System and was the consumer standard for video cassette tapes for decades.

For a bit of context, magnetic tape video recording was used in the television industry beginning in the 1950s, but it wouldn't be mainstream for home use until the 1970s.

The first commercially successful Video Tape Recorder was released in 1956 by the AMPEX corporation and it was called the AMPEX VRX-1000.

Eight years later in 1964, a Japanese company called JVC (Victor Company of Japan) entered the fray with their own videotape recorder. It was dubbed the DV220 and was their standard until the 1970s.

Then in 1969 JVC began a collaboration with two other Japanese electronics giants, Sony and Matsushita Electric, who later became Panasonic. The goal was to create a video recording standard for all of Japan. The result was a format called U-matic that released in 1971. Unlike the more common reel-to-reel systems of the time, it contained the tape in a cassette. It wasn't that successful, partly because the machine cost $1400 and blank tapes were thirty bucks. There were no prerecorded movies sold for the format, it was strictly for recording television.

After this, Sony and Matsushita decided to work on their own formats. The latter started work on the short-lived VX format, but Sony began to work on Betamax, the main competitor to VHS.

In 1971, two engineers from JVC named Yuma Shiraishi and Shizuo Takano assembled a team to start development on a videotape system for consumers. They established twelve objectives the format was trying to attain.

The first five dealt with specific features. These include a 2-hour recording time and that tapes should be interchangeable between machines. Then there were six manufacturing requirements, including affordable players that were easy to operate. The last dealt with the effects that the format could have on society.

Unfortunately for Takano and Shiraishi, the video recording industry hit a serious bump in 1972. JVC cut their budgets and decided to cease work on VHS. However, the two engineers kept working in secret and built a prototype in 1973.

The next year, Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) of Japan wanted to make the video industry have one standard format for video recording. Obviously, Sony wanted it to be Betamax, which was almost ready to be released to the public.

A Betamax tape

JVC fought this and attempted to convince other companies to go with VHS. First, they got Matsushita to agree, and eventually Sharp, Mitsubishi, and Hitachi backed VHS.

In 1975, Sony released Betamax, beating JVC to the market. However, it wasn't long before VHS was released in 1976.

The first VCR to use VHS was the Victor HR-3300, and was introduced in September of 1976. When it released in Japan, it was called the JVC HR-3300 VIDSTAR.

The first theatrical film on VHS was a South Korean drama called The Young Teacher in 1976.

VHS sales started out good, but after a few months they went back down, and it was uncertain how long the format would last. However, JVC went ahead and started selling VHS in the United States in 1977. Luckily for them, it did well in America, allowing them to also release it in Europe.

The first films made on VHS in the US were Patton, The Sound of Music, and MASH and they could cost up to $70.

In 1978, the Laserdisc format was released in North America, but VHS's main competitor would still be Betamax. The two formats competed throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

Betamax definitely had a few advantages over VHS. The video quality was better, cassettes were smaller, and it was the first one on the market. However, VHS had the upper hand in other ways.

Betamax's smaller cassettes meant they couldn't record as long as VHS. Betamax tapes were generally about an hour long while VHS could do two hours. This was crucial because it meant that one VHS tape could hold an entire film, but movies on Betamax were often sold on two tapes.

A Betamax tape could hold two hours, but only if you reduced the quality to lower than that of VHS. VHS tapes were also generally cheaper, and VHS players were lighter than those for Betamax, making them easier to manufacture. Furthermore, VHS was manufactured by several different companies, which kept costs down when compared to the few that made Betamax.

Another factor that is often cited as crucial is that pornography was on VHS as opposed to Betamax. There were some adult films on Betamax, but the vast majority were on VHS. This is sometimes referred to as the main reason that VHS won the format war, but this may be a bit of an exaggeration. It's commonly said that the victors of format wars are decided by which one has porn, but this was not the case in the most recent one as Blu-Ray became victorious over HD-DVD.

By 1983, VHS was starting to pull ahead. Next year in 1984, Toshiba stopped working with Betamax and switched to VHS. Philips and Sanyo did the same in 1985, leaving Sony as the only company still on the side of Betamax.

The war was pretty much over in 1988 when Sony released their first VHS recorder, but they still released an HD Beta format.

By the 1990s, it was clear that VHS was the dominant format, and that would continue to be the case throughout the decade. VHS was the main way people watched video at home for two decades; it fought off both Laserdisc and Video CD.

The reign of VHS would eventually end with the introduction of Digital Video Discs (DVDs). In 1997, Twister was the first big Hollywood movie to be published on DVD. By the turn of the millennium, it was the main home video format and VHS was on its way out. In 2003, DVD rentals overtook those of VHS for the first time in the United States.

The last major release on VHS was A History of Violence in 2006 by New Line Cinema. VHS was done, but to this day, many people still have a VCR hooked up and VHS tapes lying around the house. They are also a staple of thrift stores and garage sales.


I was born in 1988, so I grew up on VHS. My family had a VCR for as long as I can remember, so I didn't ever know what it was like not to have home videos at my disposal. I endlessly rewatched VHS tapes such as the original Star Wars trilogy, the Back to the Future films, Wizard of Oz, and plenty of Disney cartoons.

Therefore, I mainly think of VHS in comparison to what was to come later, namely DVDs and Blu-Rays. In my opinion, the gap between VHS and DVD was a huge evolutionary leap that dwarfs the jump from DVD to Blu-Ray. 

One of the biggest advantages of DVD over VHS is special features such as commentary tracks and making-of featurettes. There was some experimentation with this on VHS, but it was always either at the end or the beginning of the tape, not something you could easily access separately through a menu. Also, DVDs could hold a lot more, so special features were more prevalent. On VHS tapes, they were somewhat rare, but they became pretty much a standard feature of DVDs. These special features can be very informative and interesting to a film fan such as myself, and may have stoked an early interest in filmmaking.

Another big feature of DVDs is the ability to do scene selection. With a VHS tape, it just starts wherever you left off, and you have manually rewind or fast forward. There was also the ability to do subtitles as well as change the audio language.

DVDs don't degrade over repeated viewings and offered much better picture quality. The two formats have the same vertical resolution, but DVDs had frames 720 pixels wide, while VHS would max out at 250. 

Compare this with the gap between DVD and Blu-Ray. It's significant, but it's mainly about picture and audio quality, as well as increased storage (25 gigs versus 4.7). The jump from 480 to 1080 resolution is a big deal, but there really aren't any new features like the DVD had with scene selection and subtitles. 

Part of my personal collection

Going back to the beginning, I definitely think that VHS had a massive effect on film and the media industry in general. It basically introduced the concept of home video to the average person. I don't want to discount Betamax's role in all this, but it seems VHS was significantly more influential and was irrelevant by the time I was born. I've unfortunately never even seen a Betamax in person.

VHS changed movie watching from the completely passive experience it was for the first eight decades of its history. From the infancy of cinema, you were at the mercy of the theaters if you wanted to see a film. It started when they wanted it to, and it went forward consistently until the end, save perhaps an intermission.

Compare this to having a VHS tape. You can watch it whenever you want. You can stop the movie, pause it, rewind if you missed something, or fast forward if you want to skip a scene. You don't have to go to a public place with a bunch of strangers at a designated time. Instead, one can view it at their home alone, or with any number of friends. 

The only kind of home video prior to this was movies played on TV, but you had to watch whatever the stations wanted to put on at the time they decided. Plus, they added commercials and you definitely couldn't pause.

More from my VHS collection

With home video, we could now start to take control over the way we watch movies. If we loved a movie, we could watch it over and over and fast forward to our favorite scene. 

We were also beginning to not be completely limited by whatever the local theater was currently showing and the movies popular enough to be rebroadcast on TV. With VHS, people can watch films from any era; previously viewers didn't really have access to older films, unless they were lucky enough to get a rerelease.

As I mentioned, I grew up with VHS, so I have a definite nostalgic attachment to the format. There's a certain charm that came with going to Blockbuster and choosing one from an array of physical tapes that can't be replicated with browsing through the options on Netflix and streaming something. Don't get me wrong, I love the advancements in media tech, but I'll always have a soft spot for VHS.

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