Videotapes plunging into obscurity
Soon, new movies will be on DVD only, meaning that VCRs have lost the 'format war.' But your DVD player may quickly fall victim next.
Polish up its plaque and get ready to mount it next to the Victrola, between the 8mm movie projector and that Brownie camera. The videocassette recorder (VCR), whose flashing "12:00" has glowed in living rooms for nearly three decades, is about ready to retire to the home entertainment hall of fame.Skip to next paragraph
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Replacing the analog tapes of the VCR are an array of digital options that offer vastly superior features and convenience. They begin with the now ubiquitous digital versatile disc (DVD) player, continue with next year's high-definition DVD players, and may end with no special player at all - your content will be stored digitally on a hard drive or online.
As recently as 2003, more VHS tapes were being rented than DVDs. Just two years later, DVDs dominate that market. In the first six months of 2005, DVDs accounted for more than 84 percent of the rental revenue for Blockbuster Inc., the video store chain. VHS tapes brought in only 5.6 percent. (The remainder came from video-game rentals.)
Sales statistics are even more dramatic: Last year DVDs rang up more than $15 billion in sales, while VHS tapes accounted for less than $1 billion, according to the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA).
Even the VCR's workaday job recording favorite TV shows for later viewing has been usurped. The price of a digital video recorder (DVR), which does the job better, has shrunk to less than $100 for a basic unit. And cable TV companies have begun to experiment with video on demand, renting recent movies for viewing anytime night or day and offering some TV shows for viewing anytime once they have aired. The movies and shows can be stopped, reversed, forwarded, or paused, just as with a recorded program.
Last month TiVo, a popular DVR service, held a mock "funeral" for the VCR. "Today we're officially saying farewell to the VCR," a company spokeswoman said.
While others say that's a bit premature, the evidence keeps piling up. Last summer's megahit "Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith" was just released for sale in DVD format only. No VHS version will be available. Other recent films that earned at least $25 million at the box office and are also being sold this fall only on DVD include "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," "Herbie Fully Loaded," "Sky High," "March of the Penguins," "The Brothers Grimm," and "Dark Waters."
"Within 12 months or so, or sooner than that, we must expect that new [movie] releases will be exclusively digital," predicted Crossan Andersen, president of the VSDA, in a state of the industry speech last July.
A spot-check of a few Boston-area video stores seemed to validate the point. Several had no VHS tapes for sale or rent. One Blockbuster outlet in Ashland, Mass., did offer a handful of VHS rentals, but only in the children's section.
Some Blockbuster stores will continue to rent VHS, but others will not, says Randy Hargrove, a spokesman at the company's headquarters in Dallas. Blockbuster has stopped selling new VHS tapes altogether, he says, and Blockbuster Online, which rents videos over the Internet, deals exclusively in DVDs.
Despite the lack of new content for VCRs, Americans haven't stopped buying them. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) estimates that more than a million will be sold this year, along with another 4.6 million combined in a single unit with a DVD player.
The VCRs are "a replacement device," says Sean Wargo, director of industry analysis for the CEA, the trade group for the home entertainment industry. Many people have substantial VHS libraries - movies, television shows, and family home videos that they want to keep and view. This content will keep the VCR market alive for several more years, he says.
Meanwhile, units that combine digital video recorders and VCRs are expected to be popular in coming years, allowing consumers to transfer their favorite videotapes onto DVDs. The CEA expects almost 3 million of these DVRs to sell in 2005.
Some people who've finally figured out how to use their VCRs and are happy with them will find little reason to change, says Sean Bersell, a spokesman for the VSDA. "I still can't get my parents to go over to DVD - and that's OK," he says with a chuckle. "We're not quite ready to hold the funeral [for VCRs]."