Requiem for the VCR

Published 9:00 pm Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Chicago Tribune

The VCR, in frail health for decades, has died. The Funai Corp. of Japan, last known maker of videocassette recorders, has stopped.

Official cause of death: “difficulty acquiring parts.” More likely: difficulty acquiring customers. Who knew someone was still producing VCRs? The last one we saw was in a museum. And all those tapes? In the trash years ago.

Still, we mark the passing of the VCR because it liberated Americans from the tyranny of the network TV schedule. Because it ruled America’s living room in the 1970s and 1980s. Because today’s TV on demand traces its roots to the VCR revolution.

The arrival of VCRs in American living rooms was exhilarating. Who could forget that RCA model with the pop-up tape bay? What a magnificent beast! Huge and heavy, with a detailed and cryptic instruction manual that did not readily yield its secrets.

Back then, VCR choice revealed much: Proto-hipsters preferred the (allegedly) pricier, higher-quality, shorter-running Beta tape. Everyone else went with the less expensive, longer-running, pedestrian VHS. (Millennials, think Mac vs. PC.)

The wondrous machine would whir to life at any hour of day or night (if you could figure out how to set the timer). Then, hours or days later, a viewer could gorge on “thirtysomething” or “All in the Family” or “MASH” or “Miami Vice” or “St. Elsewhere” or “Cheers” (which, yes, dates us to the Pleistocene era of TV).

Video cameras captured birthday parties, piano recitals, bar mitzvahs, christenings, proms, graduations, first steps — a major leap in convenience from Super 8 film.

The tapes in their sturdy plastic containers started filling shelves. Collections grew, even if you never watched a minute. Taping appealed to the inner hoarder.

But the VCR had its limits. The plastic shells would crack. The tape itself deteriorated after repeated viewings or just the passage of time. As the tapes grew murky and grainy, they became even more precious.

That realization unleashed an industry that converted tapes to DVDs, catering to desperate parents hoping to enshrine their child’s greatest hits … on something that would last forever.

Nothing does.

Today, the cloud — that is, storage in the internet’s digital vapors — promises video immortality. As long as the power doesn’t fizzle and the servers don’t go down.

Abandoned technologies sometimes are resurrected by a new generation of devotees. That’s why some hipsters now favor vinyl records.

Still, we don’t imagine that the same sunny fate awaits the VCR. The grainy images of all those television shows, lovingly taped and archived, was comforting to a generation of videophiles intent on preserving their favorite episodes of “Star Trek” or “Seinfeld.” But who would trade those bulky tapes for the exhilarating video library in easy reach of a smartphone?

And so we eagerly await a flash forward to the next electronic marvel. RIP, VCR.