Video Home System 23.11.16

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We saw the 80s and 90s through VHS. Our memories will always need the tracking adjusted

If you grew up during the 1990s you may remember an anti-piracy campaign by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT). A minute-long short that ran before pretty much all rented videos, it depicted an argument between a market trader of the ‘cor blimey guv!’ variety and an impossibly 90s bleach-blond student type after a refund for shoddy tapes he’d recently purchased. Del Boy shuts the conversation down with an exculpatory ‘tracking’s touchy’, a phrase impenetrable to today’s youth but which would surely elicit a knowing nod from Generation X-ers.

In the age of the internet download, this under-the-counter trading of the latest movie release with some knavish Fagin seems impossibly old-fashioned. Nevertheless, until the end of the 90s, the rental market was dominated by the Video Home System (VHS). Launched in 1977, VHS proved remarkably resilient, seeing off the ill-fated LaserDisc and just about surviving the advent of Digital Video Discs, both of which offered improved picture and sound but could not record. It wasn’t until the early noughties and the arrival of hard-disk recording that VHS became truly obsolete. Given these technological leaps, it is mildly astonishing that production of the venerable VHS only ceased this year, with Japanese electronics manufacturer Funai Electric making its last machine in July.

Of course you can’t talk about VHS without mentioning its not-so-deadly rival, Sony’s Betamax. VHS versus Betamax was the classic standard war. The well-rehearsed script goes that Sony bet the house on its higher-quality picture winning the day, only to be trumped two years later by VHS’s quantity-over-quality approach. In reality, it was the former’s dinky tapes (initially only offering a paltry one hour of recording time) that torpedoed its ambitions, a rare misstep by Sony’s founder Morita Akio. In contrast, the brains behind VHS, JVC engineers Yuma Shiraishi and Shizuo Takano, developed their system according to 12 objectives, one of which decreed that one tape must offer at least two hours of recording time.

Like its rival, early VHS machines were comically large – great toploading slabs of clunky levers and whirring reels that squatted in the corner of the living room. Their impact on everyday life was incredible. Video recording not only liberated us carbon blobs from the dictats of the TV schedule, but changed the face of the high street. No shopping precinct seemed complete without the dubious adornment of Blockbuster’s branding. In the early days, the video shop was a place of wonder – walls of cartoonish VHS cover artwork screaming for attention. In this need to stand out, video shared similar goals to the music biz, but unlike vinyl there has been no subsequent renaissance of the format. Whereas LPs still provide greater depth of sound than a compressed audio file, advancements in video quality and sound are such that only a masochist would pick analogue over digital.

And then there was the tracking. Ah, the tracking. In the pre-remote era, normal procedure involved tweaking a nob with the sensitivity of a safe cracker to achieve optimum picture quality. It didn’t always work. Tracking is, of course, touchy. And now it is all over. Assuredly the nerd pound will keep a market for rare VHS films ticking over, but the longest standard war in history has finally ended. Roll credits.



James McLachlan

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It is mildly astonishing that production of the venerable VHS only ceased this year, with Japanese electronics manufacturer Funai Electric making its last machine in July

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