For those of us old enough to remember, cast
your minds back to the eighties when we made our first visits to a video rental
store to hire a VHS movie or even had the video store visit us in a mini-van.
Being able to choose a movie rather than watch the limited selection on TV or
visit an expensive cinema seemed like a revolution. Probably because it was a
revolution. For the streaming services that we see in use today, the idea of an
old-fashioned video cassette that would wear out and was slow to search seems
like a world away.

The VCR was first introduced to the consumer
market by Philips in 1972 with their N1500 but the VHS format was not
introduced commercially until September 1976 (after Betamax was introduced in
November 1975). As we know, VHS won the format wars and have continued on in
production for forty years through the introduction of Laser Disc and Video CD
and DVD and Blu-Ray and streaming…until now.

The last Betamax player was produced in 2002
and Betamax tapes ceased production earlier this year but Funai Electric has
been making VHS machines since 1983. They will finally cease production at the
end of this month. At their peak, Funai was selling 15 million units annually
(mostly under the Sanyo name) but, unsurprisingly, sales are now well below
that peak.

In my opinion, the winning of the
format war by VHS came down to two main items. Firstly, VHS introduced tapes
from the outset with a two hour recording time. Betamax only had one hour.
People wanted to record a movie or a sports event on one tape or rent a movie
on one tape and the one hour format just wasn’t quite enough. This is a classic
in the consumer world where consumer desire should be the number one priority
rather than delivering on what the company wants. I am sure Sony had some
dedicated technicians who truly believed in the superiority of their product
but at JVC they looked at what the consumer wanted. The longer recording of VHS
gave it a decided advantage but the killer blow was a decision by JVC that
Apple should have learned from in later years. JVC decided to license out their
technology to any manufacturer who wanted it. Sony wanted to produce all the
hardware themselves to maintain the high quality that they had created in the
Betamax format. It wasn’t so much that superior marketing won the day for VHS
but the weight of marketing. If you imagine a variety of manufacturers
producing VHS machines and all marketing their individual product the weight of
marketing would have drowned out whatever the might of Sony – just one company
– could produce. As an added bonus, VHS was an acronym and the world loves

I remember a couple of years ago hearing with
some sadness that the iconic Dr. What video store in Bondi Junction was closing
down after more than thirty years and now the ceasing of production of the VHS
player is another chapter closed in the technology history book.

On the bright side, if you have any old VHS
tapes sitting at home in good condition, there might be a collector willing to
hand over some good cash. Horror films from the eighties seem particularly
popular – with a copy of Halloween recently selling for twenty thousand dollars
and Tales from the QuadeaD Zone likely to fetch you over two thousand dollars.
Even Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not one of the greatest films ever produced, will
net you in the vicinity of five hundred dollars. Now that VHS players are about
to cease production I expect a dramatic rise in prices will occur for these
devices as well.

I used to complain about the cost of the
players and movies when we had to rent them when they were first introduced but
if only I knew the value the videos would have some years down the track I
might have invested in a few more copies of the popular movies of the day.

Mathew Dickerson

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