Do the abbreviations SP, LP, and SLP mean anything to you?
The year is 2009. The setting: an elementary school. During a break between classes, I dart into the office and scan the staff mailboxes. Lurking in my apportioned slot is a shrink-wrapped, rectangular box of vaguely familiar dimensions. I retrieve the item and turn it over in my hands, noticing the logo of the publisher that sold us our recently adopted textbook series. Good heavens! I exclaim mentally, as an archaeologist might upon uncovering an ancient artifact. This is a VHS tape! I stand there bewildered for a moment, puzzling over the fact that a major educational publishing house has issued new product in this archaic format. It’s a little like having an auto dealer hand me a crank to start my car.
Though VCR’s still doggedly fast-forward and rewind within the dusty, pre-fab entertainment cabinets of many homes and upon the media carts of outdated classrooms, the formerly ubiquitous devices are in terminal decline, destined for exile in an archival land of film projectors and 8-track players. DVD’s are already experiencing their own heyday, with clouds of streamable digital content predicted to make those aluminum discs obsolete. If it weren’t for the voluminous amount of existing VHS tape preserving all that has yet to be digitized, getting your hands on a functioning VCR might be as difficult as tracking down a vintage pair of parachute pants. One day soon, they’ll be as quaint as turntables, available exclusively as a means to transfer precious analog moments to your hard drive.
I can still remember the twinge of jealousy I felt when I heard that the Walsh family down the block had a VCR. It was 1979, when it seemed like everyone had a TV, some people had cable, and nobody had a VCR. Except the Walsh’s. And they subscribed to Showtime. That year a concert that I desperately wanted to see aired on the premium cable channel, and I begged Mark Walsh to tape it for me, but it never came to pass. I seethed with consumerist envy. Little did I know that within a year, my own family would be joining the ranks of the technologically entitled.
My parents were never extravagant in their purchases, and so it was rather uncharacteristic of them to plunk down $500 (in 1980 dollars, mind you) for anything as unnecessary as a VCR. The model they chose, a Panasonic PV-1210, was a top-loading behemoth with faux wood-grain paneling (really!). Its function buttons had a mechanical action like those of an audio cassette recorder; press RECORD or REWIND and you could feel the levers locking into place. A pair of manual tuning dials enabled the recording of both VHF and UHF broadcasts, and an analog counter allowed one to index programs to make it easier to locate them later – provided that you always zeroed the digits on a completely rewound tape before advancing to the desired spot.
If those features sound old-fashioned, there were two quirks about the PV-1210 that seem laughably primitive today. One was its method of recording a program while you were out. This was accomplished by tuning the VCR to the appropriate station, setting a timer, flipping a toggle switch to TIMER REC/PLAY, and then depressing the PAUSE button followed by the RECORD and PLAY buttons. The machine would sit idly until the designated time, when the PAUSE button would automatically release and the program would be recorded. There was no way to stop the recording at the end of the broadcast, and so it would simply wind along until either you returned home or the tape ran out.
The other ancient convenience was a remote pause device that connected to the back panel via a mini jack at the end of a thin cable some ten feet in length. Thanks to this device, anal retentive couch potatoes did not need to stay perched vigilantly near their VCR’s in order to edit out pesky commercial interruptions on the fly. Nor did they suffer the anxiety of unsolicited phone calls marring playback with unwanted ascensions from the La-Z-Boy. No sir, with the handy remote pause, you were master and commander of your media.
I suppose I’m not being entirely fair by implying that editing out commercials while recording was obsessively impractical. Not only were VCR’s expensive then, but blank VHS tapes also carried a hefty price tag. We purchased a handful of Panasonic NV-T120 cassettes in their somberly designed, matte-finish, black-and-red slipcases. At $15 a piece, one was discouraged from wantonly wasting tape. Why fritter away footage on commercials? We tried to get the maximum benefit from these tapes, which were packaged with adhesive labels advising neophytes that “THIS VIDEO CASSETTE TAPE CANNOT BE USED UPSIDE DOWN.” Eschewing the better quality of faster recording speeds, we almost always chose to cram in six hours of programming at the SLP setting.
The bulky miracle machine, easily twice the size and weight of later-generation VCR’s, afforded us a thrill that cannot be fully appreciated by the YouTube generation. No longer were our viewing habits constrained by the whims of programmers. Never again did we have to choose between staying up later than we wished or missing a program we wanted to see. There was no need to try tell your friends about a noteworthy TV moment when you could simply show it to them instead.
Only a few years earlier, I had been peering through the single eyepiece of a handheld toy that accepted interchangeable cassettes of 8mm film loops. By aiming the device toward a light source and cranking the handle, you could wind forward or backwards through silent scenes from major theatrical films. I had two cartridges featuring a few minutes of action from Star Wars, and I was fascinated by the power I held in my hands. The movie was long gone from theaters and years away from reaching broadcast television, but I actually owned a few silent pieces of it, and I could arrange a private screening whenever I desired.
Having your very own print of a favorite film was a tantalizing prospect that a VCR made possible, if not affordable. Prerecorded VHS cassettes were exponentially more expensive than those you might find cluttering clearance bins today (if you can find them at all). We were acquainted with one couple who dropped $80 for the VHS release of The Blues Brothers. I’m sure it brought them many hours of hilarity and enjoyment, or at least I certainly hope it did, because I recently spotted the same movie in the vastly superior DVD format with plenty of extras for $5 at Wal-Mart.
That seems to be the way things go with consumer technology, with prices falling over time even as advances are made in product quality. A year or so after our family acquired the massive Panasonic PV-1210, my brother impressed us with his purchase of a much smaller VCR that consisted of two independent components. One half was the tuner, and the other half was a portable recording deck that could be attached to a video camera for capturing special vacation moments in those wild, pioneer days before camcorders. It was outdated almost immediately.
Which is exactly what I was thinking as I considered a brand-new, prerecorded VHS tape distributed in 2009 – outdated almost immediately, and just around the corner from obsolescence. Maybe I’ll pop it in my classroom VCR and take a look at its contents, but if I do, I’ll watch it only once. The old machine no longer rewinds. Honestly, couldn’t they have sent me a DVD?