Tuesday, June 14, 2016

You never forget your first

In 1976 very few people owned VCR’s. They were expensive and not really for consumer use. They played ¾” tapes that were the size of coffee table books. And I believe they could only record one hour.

Meanwhile, VHS formats were just starting to hit the market. These were ½” tapes, smaller, and could record up to two hours. The problem was there were two formats – VHS and Sony’s Betamax. Of course they weren’t compatible so over time one had to become the standard while the other fell by the wayside. VHS won. Betamax had better quality but was more expensive and their tapes had a shorter recording time (one hour vs. two).

I preferred to go with the professional model ¾” because (a) I didn’t want to get stuck with the wrong format that would become obsolete, and (b) my reason for having a VCR was to record episodes David Isaacs and I wrote. So I wanted the best quality possible. Who knew there were going to be DVD’s and streaming and you could get 250 episodes on a bunch of little discs or just by a few clicks on your computer?

Of course the irony is that ¾” tapes became obsolete almost immediately.

I bought the JVC U-Matic unit you see pictured. It weighed a ton. Literally, one person could not carry it. Certainly not one Jew. I had to have my partner come down and help me load it in and out of the car. And I think we both got hernias.

I didn’t even buy it from a retail store. I'm not sure there were retail stores at that time.  I researched and found the unit at some warehouse in the Marina. Still, it was something like $1700, which is like $5,000 today. Imagine shelling out 5K for a VCR? The tapes themselves (also not sold in retail stores) were like $20 a pop.

Studios had not released Hollywood movies on the ¾” format, and if they did it would require two tapes and cost roughly $60 a film. Thus began piracy and bootleg tapes. But the selection was very selective. People might pay big bucks for STAR WARS; they weren’t going spend a fortune on ILSA, HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIL SHEIKS.

The owner explained how this new fangled contraption worked, how to hook it up, set the timer, etc. Then he showed me its nifty features. There was a pause button. You could freeze the picture. There was also a slow motion button. You would screen something frame by frame. It was perfect for watching porn.

I feigned great enthusiasm. Better to have him think I was a lowlife willing to pay $1,700 for pornography than a pathetic nerd who just wanted to freeze frame his writing credit.

The machine is long gone. You should’ve seen the National Council of Jewish Women trying to load it into the truck. I probably got my VHS unit around four years later. Now all of those tapes are obsolete or disintegrating in quality.

But I bought the big honking VCR the day our first MASH aired. And it taped like a champ. I froze our first MASH credit, took several snapshots (which meant going to the drugstore and getting them developed – more obsolete keepsakes), and found a cleaner copy on the internet. Here it is:
Then, in an effort to get my money’s worth, since the machine was so darn expensive, I bought some porn. My later VHS tapes couldn’t come close to the picture quality.

28 comments:

VP81955 said...

Bought my mother a VHS VCR to go with her new cable ready TV in January 1986, just in time for the Super Bowl (back when I actually cared about pro football). To test it out, I bought a tape, and since mom liked old movies, I found a $5 public domain videocassette (haven't typed that word in years) of "Nothing Sacred." She liked it, I loved it and soon became a fan of old movies in general and Carole Lombard in particular. That April, I bought my own VCR (from JCPenney!) and began taping all sorts of stuff, from old late-night flicks (then still regularly carried on UHF) to episodes of "Moonlighting."

Two years later, TNT premiered as sort of a predecessor to TCM, albeit with commercials, as Ted Turner finally took full advantage of the film libraries he had purchased (and was preserving at the same moment people ID'd him as a culprit for colorization; I taped many of those titles. Ted, and the early TNT, don't get enough credit for their part in the pre-Code revival. I'm glad Loretta Young lived long enough (she died in August 2000) to see her long-unavailable early work appreciated.

roadgeek said...

So my first job as an adult was at an appliance store. This was about 1980. We had VCR's, and they were $1200 apiece. Two-hour record. String remote. 24-hour timer. No movies available, except some public domain crap, so we sold customers on programming flexibility; you could record "Little House on the Prairie" while you're watching "Monday Night Football". Our town had plants and shipyards, and lots of shift workers. The things flew off the shelves. Couldn't keep them in stock.

Oh, yeah, porn. Lots and lots of porn. Good quality stuff, too. Decent production values and attractive actresses. At night, after the store was closed, all the employees would sit in the back and watch porn. Good times.

B.A. said...

You never forget your first! excuse to wife about porn. "It's expensive equipment." "A producer stopped by and stuck those in."

Mark said...

I was doing educational media back in the 90s and I bought an S-VHS machine so I could review the tapes at home and decide exactly what I wanted before heading into the editing bay (anyone else remember linear editing?). The machines had twice the resolution and were fully compatible with regular VHS tapes. They had been around since the late eighties and were big in low-end production (lots of smaller Fox stations used S-VHS in the beginning) but for some reason never broke out of the niche market.

Philip said...

I remember DVDs being marketed (or at least joked about) as "crystal clear pause" for enhanced porn freeze frames!

(of course it may have just been horny 15 year old classmates saying this stuff, who can remember?)

Pete Grossman said...

Priceless! "Literally, one person could not carry it. Certainly not one Jew. " Obviously, this was a two Jew job.

VP81955 said...

As for porn, I never rented it. I like sex, but as a participant, not a spectator.

Jim S said...

"Columbo" used the VCRs of this time in a murder. William Shatner is playing an actor who is the highest paid TV actor around. He's "Inspector Lucerne" and solves the unsolvable crimes.

His producer is blackmailing him, so he kills her. His alibi is that he was wataching a basesball game with his gofer. He slipped the gofer a mickey and taped the the game as he killed the blackmailing producer. He slips back home turns on the taped game wakes up the gofer and says "hey you're tired, bunk out in my guest room."

The VCR cost $3,000 in 1976 dollars.

So you were not alone Ken, hopefully you never killed a producer.

And if you can, bring back Columbo.

Jahn Ghalt said...

No surprise that a pro like you would get pro equipment, Ken. With $1700 committed to your professional legacy did you also have a killer roof-mounted antenna?

Your career is an embarrassment of riches working on long-lived hit shows over the years; if you'd worked on one-and-done shows, you might not be able to buy commercial releases of TV shows in any format, obsolete or otherwise.

As a pre-recovery audiophile in the mid-80s I was not interested in video until Beta HiFi came out. I had both “hifi” formats – low-end machines that worked well. Beta was clearly superior even in “Beta III” speed (4.5 hours) – especially for fast-motion sports. For awhile I recorded Cheers re-runs on Beta and most times timeshifted rental tapes. The pause was more nimble on Beta – I got to where I could reliably anticipate the ends of commercials for restarts.

benson said...

Two things...

I've come to learn the hard way that "early adopter" is synonymous with fool and his money are soon parted. Early 80's I spent over $900 on a Fisher VCR. Heartaches, nothing but heartaches.

B. Ken, not sure if you're aware, but three sportswriters have created a Jewish Baseball Museum website. Art Shamsky is the current feature.

Andy Rose said...

It is interesting to see what formats catch on and which ones don't. Often the manufacturers don't appreciate what it is consumers are really looking for. The big selling point for CDs was believed to be superior sound quality, but most of the people I knew who bought their first CD players hardly even noticed the improvement in quality over a cassette. They just liked that they could go directly to the song they wanted on an album without the hassle of fast-forward and stopping and trying to get to the right place. Sound quality was beside the point.

Later the Digital Audio Tape came along, which had nearly double the capacity of a CD, was recordable, had higher sound quality, and was smaller than a CD. But it didn't catch on because it wasn't truly random access like a CD, and that's what people really cared about.

Unknown said...

We were never early adopters, but I still have 3 working VCRs, and just found my VCR repair kit. (special tool to pull the head) But I was just informed by my nephew over the weekend, that some of the original Disney VHS movies are worth some money. They have different versions that what you can get today. Of course, before the Delux version, and the Collectors edition, or the Special limited release....

norm said...

I thought getting the 1st "Pong" game was something. Of course like Ken I got rid of it before it became a collectors item.
Those 3/4" machines were used by Mr. John Mellancamp back in the day shooting some of the first MTV songs to video. In 1980 dollars it was somewhere around $7-10 k with the lights and camera altogether.

john not mccain said...

Too bad you didn't run into Bob Crane's video guy. He could've gotten you the very best stuff, and changed your life at the same time.

My boon companion still uses VCRs to create his art movies.

Jeff Alexander said...

I was very thrilled that I was able to teach my mother how to program her VCR so that it would not always be flashing "12:00." However, if I wanted her to record a program on her VCR for me, I would have to walk her through it, step-by-step, over the telephone. But she was able to do it, even if her cat kept putting its nose in her way (the VCR was on a stand below the TV and she had to get down on her knees to see because the luminous numbers weren't very luminous).

Donald Benson said...

My first investment was RCA Selectavision, a weird cross between laserdisc and two-sided vinyl records. You couldn't record, which meant a lot a studios got behind it (they were still fighting VCRs in court) and there was a pretty decent selection of titles. A few issues:
-- The discs could scratch if you breathed on them.
-- One hour per side, so there was always a mandatory flipping break
-- VCR prices plunged, so new disc titles stopped and stores quit carrying the existing stock.
I shoulda known. Before video, I collected silent shorts in 8mm. I held out against Super 8, figured regular 8 was the format that would endure.

John Nixon said...

I still have a Beta VCR as well as a VHS machine and tapes for both even though I haven't used either one in years. As I under stand it what happened was that Sony came out with the Beta machine as the first home video recorder. The quality was superior and the mechanics were simpler than VHS. But they wanted to keep exclusive rights to their patent and refused to license those rights to build Beta machines to other manufacturers. So JVC said "oh really?...well, watch this!" and designed the VHS machine. It was still half-inch tape but the cassette was a little bit bigger and the 'innards' were different enough so they could obtain their own patent. Then they licensed the manufacturing rights to any company who wanted to pay for them. The other companies made their versions, prices came down and people couldn't tell much, if any, difference in quality. Sony's greed was their undoing and they, too, ended up having to buy the rights to build VHS machines and abandon the Beta format.

MikeK.Pa. said...

My son and I love THE GOLDBERGS, not the least of which because the family uses the same JVC VCR we had when my son was growing up.

DrBOP said...

Anyone need 1200 hours of SNL.....on VHS?

YEKIMI said...

Wow! Haven't seen one of those VTRs since high school. They finally decided to wire the school for CCTV my junior year [about 1974]and had a company install about 2 or 3 or those huge monsters. Since I was the A/V geek the administration said "Hey, how the hell do these things work?" and told me to teach them. I didn't teach them everything I found out about the machines but for years after I had graduated they called me to come help fix them whenever they had a problem. As usual with high school students, we came up with plenty of parodies of TV shows and movies that we ended up making. Did a parody of "The Count of Monte Cristo" [basically we added our own dialogue....sorta like MYST 3000] and it became quite the underground hit that was talked about for the next few years.....of course the administrators were clueless about it.

stephen catron said...

HA !!
I've seen Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks and I have the movie poster.

KB said...

DrBop- I'll take the SNL!

Kent Morgan said...

I played hockey with a guy nicknamed Medium (not Fast) Eddie who had to be first for everything and always wanted the biggest and best. I remember after a game we were sitting around in the dressing room having a beer and Eddie telling us that Beta was what to buy. Several of us followed his advice. I was even stupider as I figured a portable machine was what I needed and bought an expensive one that came in two large parts. I'm telling the truth when I say it got very little use. I'm not sure what happened to the machine, but it could be hidden somewhere in my house or garage. I should look for it. Even today when we get together with Eddie, someone will say Beta and we respond sure, Eddie.

William C Bonner said...

My dad bought our first VCR in 1984. It was SVHS, when they'd introduced high quality stereo recording to the format.

I've enjoyed watching "The Americans" even though I think it's gone downhill from the first season.

One thing that really bothers me is that they've got a TV and VCR over the fireplace. It's wouldn't have been a common layout anytime during the 80s because the depth of a VCR would have been bigger than any fireplace mantle.

Fireplaces were generally designed so that the front was close to flush with the room and the back was extended further through the wall because it was required to build that way for proper airflow. It wasn't until the late 1990s that fake gas fireplaces became popular and allowed for different styles that didn't rely on a chimney.

Todd Mason said...

I suspect, sadly?, that those who would buy the ILSA movie would pay more for it than those who would buy STAR WARS...albeit they ere somewhat fewer in number....I, too, had a Very Old UMatic at about the time Beta was falling out of the marketplace...I had copies of my public-access two-episode series on UMatic cassette...still do, in storage...

The RCA stylus videodisc was the most remarkably retrograde tech possible, but the skips and such one might see (my cousin had a set) were kinda impressive video effects on their own. Why no one has yet put out laser "stylus" phonographs at a reasonable price given the vinyl revival, niche as it might be, I'm not sure. Certainly standard laserdiscs are as orphaned as UMatic is these years...does anyone outside of a few enthusiasts and some radio stations that didn't trash their '80s cart machines still have 8-track audio tapes, I wonder...

My father was an electronics engineer, so such items as open-reel tape decks and the Optigan organ/synthesizer (with flexible optical disk keyboard programming) were facts of life as I grew up.

Jahn Ghalt said...

YEKIMI reminds me of the first time I was videotaped - first year of varsity tennis in March 1975.

March in Anchorage means snow on the ground so we did a lot of "wall work". One day the coaches presented an AV cart - TV on top, videotape machine below. Everyone hit some backhands and forehands against the wall on camera and we viewed the tape together - very instructive.

Chris said...

I worked for a PBS station in college (WKAR-TV, if you're asking) and we were still using professional level 3/4" tapes and tape machines for all of the interstitial material (promos, reminders of pledge, etc etc) until I left in 1999. And eight-track carts for v/o's, too.

I left just after they got a new digital transmitter and it struck me as funny to realize someone out there was watching us on the new-fangled digital TV... which was occasionally broadcast via thirty-year old technology.

Kaleberg said...

I got my first VCR back in '76. I chose VHS for the 2 hour recording time. The serious video fans and professionals I knew had 3/4" machines. I mainly used my VCR to record old movies off the air. Then video stores starting renting movies. It killed the rep houses, but introduced a new generation to a lot of old movies. I still keep a VHS player around since there are old movies on VHS tapes that never seem to get released on DVD, uploaded to Youtube, or stashed at archive.org.

Granted, Youtube keeps getting more and more amazing stuff. I just watched a classic, Dalu - The Big Road from 1934. The director was personally denounced by Mao. It was a silent musical which sounds like a contradiction in terms. It had musical numbers and some sound effects, but the dialog was displayed in Mandarin text.