Light at the end of the tape

I'M convinced one of the most frequently uttered phrases by couples who have left the house for a Friday or Saturday evening's entertainment is: ``Don't worry, honey, I promise we won't miss it, I set the VCR.'' The theory being that some television broadcast such as ``The Wizard of Oz,'' an episode of ``Masterpiece Theatre,'' or just an hour of ``Miami Vice'' would be captured by that most recent tenant in the home entertainment center - the videocassette recorder.

One could now spend a comfortable evening at a restaurant, friend's house, or movie, confident that the black box was at home quietly bagging the game for later viewing.

Countless times my wife and I have come home to find terrific successes - a success consisting of an entire program taped in such a way that most of the beginning credits, most of the closing credits, and everything in between has not suffered some violent, unintentional editing.

During the first month we taped successful (and I might add commercial-free) episodes of ``Cheers,'' ``Moonlighting,'' the ``CBS Evening News,'' and a few weekend movies. I was dazzled. No more enslavement to TV schedules. No more whiny exits from the house as the opening credits rolled to ``Adam's Rib'' with Tracy and Hepburn. Friday and Saturday nights were liberated!

If television has been aptly pegged ``bubble gum for the eyes,'' then the VCR's dictum was simple: Chew at your leisure.

A few months into VCR ownership, however, we found the sheen began to wear off. I discovered that I shared (along with many of my VCR-owning friends) symptoms of what I refer to as a ``vidiot.'' This is an affliction in which, while preparing the VCR to tape a show, one sets every switch, dial, and knob correctly - with the exception of one.

Since a VCR contains a host of switches, the possibilities for capturing a show in some abbreviated version of its former self became, well, endless.

I quickly found that if the mistake is made at the front end of the tape, friends and loved ones generally treat it as a minor infraction. This is largely because these incidents are discovered within a few minutes of viewing. You pop in a tape and find that the TV screen instantly fills with characters lurching into the story line. (She running down a road: ``But how can we ever explain what happened?'' He running alongside her: ``We don't have to, Eddie's mother burned the printouts.'')

On the other hand, if the mistake in taping is made toward the end of a tape - after a longtime investment - well, things can turn downright ugly. We had some friends over one night for a murder mystery with Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck. After we had sat through 1 hour 50 minutes of the film's 2 hours, the climax arrived. At this point the window curtains are ripped apart to reveal the culprit standing on the sill. Just as the curtains were parting, there was a loud Bang! Our VCR ran out of tape. We sat astonished, staring at the screen, and then spent the next hour guessing how it ended.

A few times when setting up to tape a show, I have inadvertently preselected the wrong channel. Then we have come home to a virtual electronic landfill of programming. On one occasion I found my wife staring in disbelief at the ``Home Shopping Network.'' It was playing on the tape I had set up to record ``Casablanca.''

Now not every show gets fouled up. No, actually it's much worse than that. If every show went through an accidental axing, my wife would have spirited the VCR to the curb early Thursday morning for trash pickup. But it's not so clear cut. Only a few shows, a few crucial shows, get sheared. Thus the result of taping most shows successfully most of the time builds trust and expectancy. That quickly dissolves the moment we sit down to watch ``The African Queen'' and find ``Hee-Haw.''

In my defense, some things were out of my control, like the night a lightning storm knocked out our power while the VCR was recording the sixth episode to ``The Jewel in the Crown.'' Unfortunately, we didn't discover this glitch until months later at our ``Jewel in the Crown'' weekend extravaganza.

In all honesty, after five years of owning a VCR, I wouldn't be without one. In many ways it has cured us of watching a lot of network television. These days we set the VCR and head out, rarely even watching the taped results. We find we read more now. Our VCR has become one major couch potato.

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